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What is Synthetic Aperture Radar?

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What is Synthetic Aperture Radar?

Environmental monitoring, earth-resource mapping, and military systems require broad-area imaging at high resolutions. Many times the imagery must be acquired in inclement weather or during night as well as day. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) provides such a capability. SAR systems take advantage of the long-range propagation characteristics of radar signals and the complex information processing capability of modern digital electronics to provide high resolution imagery. Synthetic aperture radar complements photographic and other optical imaging capabilities because of the minimum constraints on time-of-day and atmospheric conditions and because of the unique responses of terrain and cultural targets to radar frequencies.

Synthetic aperture radar technology has provided terrain structural information to geologists for mineral exploration, oil spill boundaries on water to environmentalists, sea state and ice hazard maps to navigators, and reconnaissance and targeting information to military operations. There are many other applications or potential applications. Some of these, particularly civilian, have not yet been adequately explored because lower cost electronics are just beginning to make SAR technology economical for smaller scale uses.

Sandia has a long history in the development of the components and technologies applicable to Synthetic Aperture Radar -- 40 years in radar, antenna, and miniature electronics development; 30 years in microelectronics; and 25 years in precision navigation, guidance, and digital-signal processing. Over the last decade, we have applied these technologies to imaging radars to meet the needs of advanced weapon systems; verification and nonproliferation programs; and environmental applications. Sandia's expertise in electromagnetics, microwave electronics, high-speed signal processing, and high performance computing and navigation, guidance and control have established us as world leaders in real-time imaging, miniaturization, processing algorithms, and innovative applications for SAR.

How does Synthetic Aperture Radar work?

A detailed description of the theory of operation of SAR is complex and beyond the scope of this document. Instead, this page is intended to give the reader an intuitive feel for how synthetic aperture radar works.

Consider an airborne SAR imaging perpendicular to the aircraft velocity as shown in the figure below. Typically, SARs produce a two-dimensional (2-D) image. One dimension in the image is called range (or cross track) and is a measure of the "line-of-sight" distance from the radar to the target. Range measurement and resolution are achieved in synthetic aperture radar in the same manner as most other radars: Range is determined by precisely measuring the time from transmission of a pulse to receiving the echo from a target and, in the simplest SAR, range resolution is determined by the transmitted pulse width, i.e. narrow pulses yield fine range resolution.

How synthetic aperture radar works
Synthetic Aperture Radar Imaging Concept


The other dimension is called azimuth (or along track) and is perpendicular to range. It is the ability of SAR to produce relatively fine azimuth resolution that differentiates it from other radars. To obtain fine azimuth resolution, a physically large antenna is needed to focus the transmitted and received energy into a sharp beam. The sharpness of the beam defines the azimuth resolution. Similarly, optical systems, such as telescopes, require large apertures (mirrors or lenses which are analogous to the radar antenna) to obtain fine imaging resolution. Since SARs are much lower in frequency than optical systems, even moderate SAR resolutions require an antenna physically larger than can be practically carried by an airborne platform: antenna lengths several hundred meters long are often required. However, an airborne radar could collect data while flying this distance and then process the data as if it came from a physically long antenna. The distance the aircraft flies in synthesizing the antenna is known as the synthetic aperture. A narrow synthetic beamwidth results from the relatively long synthetic aperture, which yields finer resolution than is possible from a smaller physical antenna.

Achieving fine azimuth resolution may also be described from a doppler processing viewpoint. A target's position along the flight path determines the doppler frequency of its echoes: Targets ahead of the aircraft produce a positive doppler offset; targets behind the aircraft produce a negative offset. As the aircraft flies a distance (the synthetic aperture), echoes are resolved into a number of doppler frequencies. The target's doppler frequency determines its azimuth position.

While this section attempts to provide an intuitive understanding, SARs are not as simple as described above. Transmitting short pulses to provide range resolution is generally not practical. Typically, longer pulses with wide-bandwidth modulation are transmitted which complicates the range processing but decreases the peak power requirements on the transmitter. For even moderate azimuth resolutions, a target's range to each location on the synthetic aperture changes along the synthetic aperture. The energy reflected from the target must be "mathematically focused" to compensate for the range dependence across the aperture prior to image formation. Additionally, for fine-resolution systems, the range and azimuth processing is coupled (dependent on each other) which also greatly increases the computational processing.

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Matthew R. Lopez, Business Project Lead
Synthetic Aperture Radar Website Owner
Sandia National Laboratories
Albuquerque, NM 87185-0519
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845-2019 (Phone)
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844-5924 (Fax)
matlope@sandia.gov