navigation image map

How Radar Works

A typical radar system consists of the following components:

(1) a pulse generator that discharges timed pulses of microwave/radio energy

(2) a transmitter

(3) a duplexer

(4) a directional antenna that shapes and focuses each pulse into a stream

(5) returned pulses that the receive antenna picks up and sends to a receiver that converts (and amplifies) them into video signals

(6) a recording device which stores them digitally for later processing and/or produces a realtime analog display on a cathode ray tube (CRT) or drives a moving light spot to record on film.

Each pulse lasts only microseconds (typically there are about 1,500 pulses per second). Pulse length–an important factor along with bandwidth in setting the system resolution–is the distance traveled during the pulse generation. The duplexer separates the outgoing and returned pulses (i.e., eliminates their mutual interferences) by blocking reception during transmission and vice versa. The antenna on a ground system is generally a parabolic dish.

Radar antennas on aircraft are usually mounted on the underside of the platform so as to direct their beam to the side of the airplane in a direction normal to the flight path.** For aircraft, this mode of operation is implied in the acronym SLAR, for Side Looking Airborne Radar. A real aperture SLAR system operates with a long (about 5-6 m) antenna, usually shaped as a section of a cylinder wall. This type produces a beam of noncoherent pulses and uses its length to obtain the desired resolution (related to angular beamwidth) in the azimuthal (flight line) direction. At any instant the transmitted beam propagates outward within a fan-shaped plane, perpendicular to the flight line.

A second type of system, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), is exclusive to moving platforms. It uses an antenna of much smaller physical dimensions, which sends its pulses from different positions as the platform advances, simulating a real aperture by integrating the pulse echos into a composite signal. It is possible through appropriate processing to simulate effective antenna lengths up to 100 m or more. This system depends on the Doppler effect (apparent frequency shift due to the target’s or the radar-vehicle’s velocity) to determine azimuthal resolution. As coherent pulses transmitted from the radar source reflect from the ground to the advancing platform (aircraft or spacecraft), the target acts as if it were in apparent (relative) motion. This motion results in changing frequencies, which give rise to variations in phase and amplitude in the returned pulses. The radar records these data for later processing by optical (using coherent laser light) or digital correlation methods. The system analyzes the moderated pulses and recombines them to synthesize signals equivalent to those from a narrow-beam, real-aperture system.


8-4: What is the main practical advantage over SAR over SLAR? ANSWER

Let us now consider the beam characteristics of a typical radar system, as well as the nature and interpretation of the signal returns, as displayed on film or a monitor. The following illustration describes this process (from Sabins, 1987):

Illustration showing the beam characteristics of a typical radar system.

The upper half of this figure depicts a strip of land surface being scanned by the radar beam. The aircraft moves at some altitude above the terrain in an azimuthal direction, while the pulses spread outward in the range (look) direction. Any line-of-sight from the radar to some ground point within the terrain strip defines the slant range to that point. The distance between the aircraft nadir (directly below) line and any ground target point is its ground range. The ground point closest to the aircraft flight trace, at which sensing begins, is the near range limit. The pulsed ground point at the greatest distance normal to the flight path fixes the far range. At the radar antenna, the angle between a horizontal plane (essentially, parallel to a level surface) and a given slant range direction is called the depression angle for any point along that directional line. We refer to the complementary angle (measured from a vertical plane) as the look angle (a good mnenonic is "look up - depress down"). The incidence angle at any point within the range is the angle between the radar beam direction and a line perpendicular (normal) to the surface, which can be inclined at any angle (which varies with slope orientation in non-flat topography). The depression angle decreases outward from near to far range. Pulse travel times increase outward between these limits. The duration of a single pulse determines the resolution at a given slant range. This range resolution is effectively the minimum distance between two reflecting points along the azimuthal direction that the radar can identify as separate, at that range. Range resolution gets poorer outward for a specific pulse duration. Thus the resolution increases (gets better) with increasing depression angles (it’s highest, close-in).

8-5: Both the Sun and radar are examples of an active illuminating source. Aside from the differences in peak wavelengths, what is the most obvious difference in the way each illuminates its full target? ANSWER

The duration of a single pulse determines the two types of resolution at a given slant range. This range resolution (effectively, the minimum distance between two reflecting points along the look direction at that range at which these may be sensed as separate and distinct) gets poorer outward for a specific pulse duration; thus the resolution increases with increasing depression angles (highest, close-in). The formula for range resolution is Rr(in cm) = tc/2 cos B, t (tau, in Greek) is the pulse length (in microseconds), c is the speed of light (3 x 108 m.sec) and B (beta) is the depression angle. There is a second measure, the azimuth resolution, which at any specific slant range point expresses the minimal size of an object along the direction of the flight path that can be resolved; it too varies with depression angle (i.e., slant distance outward). It is given by: Ra(in cm) = 0.7Sl/D, where S is the slant range (in km), l (small lambda) is the system wavelength, and D is the effective length of the antenna in centimeters.

8-6: Given a C-band radar with wavelength of 5 cm that generates pulses 0.1 microseconds duration, what is its range resolution for a depression angle of 50 ° its antenna is 5000 cm in length, and it looks outward at the altitude it is flown for slant distances from 5 km to 15 km - for these conditions calculate the resolutions at the corresponding near and far ranges. ANSWER

Pulse intensities of returned signals within the beam-swept strip are plotted in the lower half of the above figure. The pulses undergo varying degrees of backscattering when they reach an object. A smooth, or specular, surface at low angles to the look direction (subparallel) scatter most of the pulses away from the receiver. In effect, the smooth surface reflects most of the signal away, so that its image expression is dark. A rough surface, in contrast, scatters the pulse beam over many directions, a fraction of which returns to the radar. The amount of returned signal determines the relative lightness of the image tone. The quantity of returned energy (as backscatter echos) also depends on the size of the target relative to the signal’s wavelength. Objects with dimensions similar to the wavelength appear bright (as though rough), while smaller ones are dark (smooth).

In the above diagram, note first the intensity peak in the tracing associated with the steep slope of the mountain side facing the passing aircraft. At this low incidence angle, a significant part of the transmitted pulses is reflected directly back to the receiver. However, the beam fails to reach (illuminate) the opposing mountain slope (back side) leading to no return (black) from this shadowed area or if the slope is so inclined as to receive some illumination at high incidence the returned signal is weak (dark gray). (For a mountain with some average slope and a given height, the shadow length increases with decreasing depression angle.) The next feature encountered is vegetation, which typically consists of irregular-oriented surfaces, with some leaves facing the radar and others in different positions. These objects in the plant together behave as somewhat rough and diffuse surfaces, scattering the beam but also returning variable signals of intermediate intensities, depending on leaf shape and size, tree shape, continuity of canopy, etc. The metal bridge, with its smooth surfaces, is a strong reflector (buildings, with their edges and corners, also tend to behave that way but the nature of their exterior materials somewhat reduces the returns). The lake, with its smooth surface, functions as a specular reflector to divert most of the signal away from the receiver in this far range position. Smooth surfaces at near range locations will return more of the signal. The behavior of a surface, whether smooth, intermediate, or rough, in terms of the height h of small surface objects, can be determined by a "less than" formula. Peake and Oliver give these criteria: For a surface to be smooth, this applies: h < wavelength/25 x sine B; to be rough: h < wavelength/4.4 x sine B.

8-7: Calculate the smoothness and roughness values for a wavelength of 15 cm and a depression angle of 60°. ANSWER

8-8: How will the circular fields, watered by the pivot irrigation described in Section 3, appear (gray level wise) in a radar image? ANSWER

The signal trace shown in the figure represents a single scan line, which is composed of pixels, each corresponding to a resolution-determined area on the ground. The succession of scan lines produces an image by varying either the light intensities on a display (itself made up of screen-resolution pixels), or the density levels in a film, in proportion to the signal intensities. On either film or conventional black and white monitors, strong intensity peaks show as light tones and weak returned signals are dark.

.navigation image map

Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
Contributor Information
Last Updated: September '99

Webmaster: Bill Dickinson Jr.
Site Curator: Nannette Fekete

Please direct any comments to