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An Introduction to Synthetic Aperture Radar

Sahand Noorizadeh
School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Georgia 30332–0250
Email: sahand@gatech.edu

Abstract—This paper is the final project report of the Intro-

duction to Radar and Electromagnetic Remote Sensing (ECE
4390) course in Spring 2010 at Georgia Institute of Technology

The common perception of radar is a stationary rotating
antenna that produces signals representing moving objects. A
commonly refereed type of radar is the airport surveillance
radar. A less known type of radar is the imaging radar.
The idea of imaging radars is not too different from the
airport surveillance radars. In imaging radars, the objects are
usually stationary and the radar is what is in motion and
also the objective is to capture a two-dimensional topographic
image. In simple terms, they are non-optical cameras. Imaging
radars have been used in many applications for mapping the
Earth and other planets with optically opaque atmospheres
and monitoring changes on the ground surfaces of interest to Fig. 1. SAR geometery.
geologists and many other military applications.
Synthetic aperture radars (SAR’s) are imaging radars that
by taking advantage of the motion of the radar and utilizing Where the subscript ra denotes the resolution due to the real
sophisticated signal processing, limitations imposed by physi- aperture of the antenna, D, R is the range between the center
cal and electrical constraints are improved. SAR’s are able to of the footprint and the antenna, and λ is the wavelength of
extract two-dimensional images of an area of a surface (target) the transmitted frequency. Even for high-frequency radars with
from the received signals with very high resolution. large antenna aperture, ρra is a few kilometers which is hardly
This paper provides a brief introduction to synthetic aperture enough to resolve a few blocks of a city. Synthetic aperture
radar resolution and its related parameters. radars exploit the forward motion of the platform (radar carrier
such as an airplane or a satellite) with the help of advanced
II. SAR C ONCEPTS digital signal processing to synthesize a large antenna aperture
The simple geometry of SAR is shown in Figure 1. Where η which in turn increases the range resolution (compress the
is the relative time with respect to the instant that the target first footprint width along the azimuth axis) without unrealistically
becomes visible to the antenna beamwidth, R0 is the shortest large antenna apertures. Carl Wiley who was the first person
range between the sensor and the target, and Vs is the velocity to describe the concept of SAR named this technique Doppler
of the sensor or the footprint. Beam Sharpernning [1].
The concept of SAR resolution will be discussed in detail
in the following section but it suffices at this point to point out III. SAR R ESOLUTION
that the narrower the width of the footprint along the azimuth There are two resolutions associated with the SAR image:
the finer the resolution of the width of the image (there’s also Crossrange (or azimuth) resolution which determines the
another resolution along the signal which will be discussed width of a resolvable area along the direction of the radar
in the next section). Assuming a stationary radar in the sky, motion and Range resolution which determines the minimum
the width of the footprint is determined by the azimuth 3-dB separation of two resolvable objects inside the footprint along
beamwidth of the antenna and is given by Eq. 1. the radiating beam. Figure 2 shows these resolutions inside
Rλ the footprint. Synthetic aperture radars use two different tech-
ρra ≈ RθB = (1) niques to improve these two resolutions. The concept behind
these techniques are discussed next. domain. In most radar systems, only a single-frequency carrier
signal is modulated with a rectangular pulse of duration τp
A. Range Resolution
seconds. The bandwidth of this modulated signal is B ≈ 1/τp .
Ignoring the motion of the radar for the moment, along If instead of a single-frequency carrier, N successive step
the radiation line, SAR is mainly a range detection radar carrier frequencies ∆f Hz apart are modulated with the
which transmits a train of pulses with a certain pulse repetition same rectangular pulse, then the waveform bandwidth becomes
frequency (PRF) and receives a time delayed version of the B = (N − 1)∆f ≫ 1/τp . Then the effective pulse duration
original signals determined by the range between the radar is 1/B. In practice, step frequencies are not used for SAR’s.
and the targets. Figure 3 shows the geometry of SAR with the Instead, a continuous linear sweep of frequency also known as
range on the x-axis. the Linear Frequency Modulation (LFM) is used [2]. Figure 4
shows the waveform of a pulsed modulated LFM signal.

Fig. 4. Pulse modulated LFM waveform.

The waveform equation, bandwidth, and the instantaneous

frequency of an LFM signal is given by Eqs. 3, 4, and 5
Fig. 2. Crossrange and Range resolutions of the SAR. respectively.
{ ( )}
s(t) = cos 2π fc t + kt2 /2 (3)
B = kt (4)
f (t) = fc + kt (5)
Where −τp /2 ≤ t ≤ τp /2, k is the chirp rate of the
waveform, and fc is the center frequency. Using the Pulse
Compression technique means that every scatterer inside along
the length ρr in Figure 3 backscatters a different frequency.
This simply means that each frequency represnts a ”point”
Fig. 3. Geometry of the SAR Range resolutions. along ρr . At the receiver end, matched filters are used to
extract the backscattered LFM signals from the noise and other
If τp is the duration of one of the transmitted pulses, then unwanted propagation effects.
the length of the area on the ground illuminated by that pulse B. Crossrange Resolution
is the range resolution and is given by Eq. 2.
In Figure 5, scatterers M1 and M2 both have the same
ρr = (2) ranges but they are separated in the azimuth (parallel to the
2 sin(θ) flight path) direction. Using the backscattered waves alone, the
Where c is the speed of light and θ is the look angle. Eq. 2 azimuth resolution is given by Eq. 6.
shows that the range resolution is independent of the range.
One way to improve the range resolution (i.e. shorten ρr ) is Rλ
ρa = (6)
to decrease the pulse duration τp but this would reduce the l
average transmitted power which in turn would degrade the Where R is the range, l is the length or diameter of the
signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). To compensate for this loss, the antenna aperture, and λ is the career wavelength. Therefore,
peak power needs to be increased but there are limitations to there are three ways to improve the crossrange resolution (i.e.
this as well. reduce ρa ). Decreasing the altitude of the flying platform can
Pulse compression is the technique used in Synthetic Aper- be done to a certain level. In spaceborne applications, this may
ture Radars to shorten the transmitted pulse τp . The idea not even be an option since the altitude determines the velocity
behind the pulse compression is to keep the pulse duration the of the spacecraft. Increasing the frequency is an option and is
same but divide it into shorter pulses, δτp , detectable by the often used in modern SAR’s but complexity of the RF system
signal processor. To explain how this can be achieved, it would at higher frequency would eventually impose its limits as well.
be simpler to start from analyzing this from the frequency Finally, the physical aperture of the antenna would need to be
impractically very large to have a significant contribution to Where kr is close to 1 and is a coefficient that depends on
the crossrange resolution. the quality of the processing [3]. Using the Doppler frequency
SAR’s exploit the motion of the platform to separate two shift detection, the improved crossrange resolution is given by
scatterers of the same range that are inside the footprint at the Eq. 10.
same time. Scatterers M1 and M2 of Figure 5 have angular kr λR
ρa = (10)
separation of θ2 − θ1 and each with radial velocities given 2vTe sin(θ)
by Eqs. 7. This leads to a Doppler frequency shift from the Where v is the velocity of the platform. This equation shows
carrier frequency for each target velocity given by Eq. 8. that the best resolution is achieved when the center of the
beamwidth and the target are directly pointed at each other.
Another way of realizing how SAR’s improve the cross-
range resolution is noting that multiple backscatter signals with
different Doppler frequency shifts from the same scatterer is
collected during the illumination time window. Using a signal
processing algorithm that iterates through the power-Doppler
history frequency as shown in Figure 7, the maximum received
power and zero Doppler points for each target can be found
to separate that target from other scatterers. Having multiple
data for the same target also improves the SNR [4].

Fig. 5. Top view of two scatterers of the same range inside the footprint.

vr1 = vs cos(θ1 ) (7a)

vr2 = vs cos(θ2 ) (7b)
fD = (8)
It now becomes up to the smallest detectable Doppler fre-
quency shift to determine the crossrange resolution. Figure 6 Fig. 7. Power-Doppler history plot.
shows how a target enters the 3-dB beamwidth of the antenna
and remains illuminated until it exits the beamwidth. The
C. Synthesizing Antenna Aperture
In the geometry of Figure 6, the length along the azimuth
direction that the target is illuminated is given by Eq. 11.
Lsynth = vTe sin(θsynth ) (11)
Where Te is the total target illumination time and v is the
velocity of the platform. Eq. 10 can be re-written as
kr λR λR
ρa = ≈ (12)
2Lsynth 2Lsynth
The azimuth beamwidth of an antenna is θB ≈ λ/l. Where l
is the length of the antenna aperture. From Eq. 12, it can seen
that the improved resolution could have also been achieved
using an antenna with aperture length of 2Lsynth . Therefore,
Fig. 6. Target illumination and the synthetic aperture. SAR’s synthesize a very large antenna aperture using a small
antenna aperture hence the name Synthetic Aperture Radar.
Doppler frequency shifts can be found by spectral analysis R EFERENCES
using a Fourier transform. To do this, the SAR system takes
[1] C. Wiley, Synthetic aperture radars, IEEE Transactions Aerospace and
a Te -second window of the illumination time and performs a Electronic Systems, vol. AES-21, pp. 440, May 1985.
FT on it. Therefore, the smallest detectable Doppler frequency [2] Sullivan, Roger, Radar Handbook, 3rd ed., Sec. 17.4
is given by Eq. 9. [3] Lacomme, Hardange, Marchias, and Normant, Air and Spaceborne Radar
kr Systems - An Introduction, p. 235.
δfD = (9) [4] I. Skolnik, Merrillm, Introduction to Radar Systems, 3rd ed., p. 45.