system or technique for detecting the position, movement, and nature of a remote object by means of radio waves reflected from its surface. Although most radar units use microwave frequencies, the principle of radar is not confined to any particular frequency range. There are some radar units that operate on frequencies well below 100 megahertz (megacycles) and others that operate in the infrared range and above. The term radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, is also used to denote the apparatus for implementing the technique.
Radar involves the transmission of pulses of electromagnetic waves by means of a directional antenna; some of the pulses are reflected by objects that intercept them. The reflections are picked up by a receiver, processed electronically, and converted into visible form by means of a display screen (formerly a cathode-ray tube, now typically a liquid crystal display). The range of the object is determined by measuring the time it takes for the radar signal to reach the object and return. The object's location with respect to the radar unit is determined from the direction in which the pulse was received. In most radar units the beam of pulses is continuously rotated at a constant speed, or it is scanned (swung back and forth) over a sector, also at a constant rate. The velocity of the object is measured by applying the Doppler principle: if the object is approaching the radar unit, the frequency of the returned signal is greater than the frequency of the transmitted signal; if the object is receding from the radar unit, the returned frequency is less; and if the object is not moving relative to the radar unit, the return signal will have the same frequency as the transmitted signal.
The information secured by radar includes the position and velocity of the object with respect to the radar unit. In some advanced systems the shape of the object may also be determined. Commercial airliners are equipped with radar devices that warn of obstacles in or approaching their path and give accurate altitude readings. Planes can land in fog at airports equipped with radar-assisted ground-controlled approach (GCA) systems, in which the plane's flight is observed on radar screens while operators radio landing directions to the pilot. A ground-based radar system for guiding and landing aircraft by remote control was developed in 1960.
Radar is also used to measure distances and map geographical areas (shoran) and to navigate and fix positions at sea. Meteorologists use radar to monitor precipitation; it has become the primary tool for short-term weather forecasting and is also used to watch for severe weather such as thunderstorms and tornados. Radar can be used to study the planets and the solar ionosphere and to trace solar flares and other moving particles in outer space.
Various radar tracking and surveillance systems are used for scientific study and for defense. For the defense of North America the U.S. government developed (c.1959–63) a radar network known as the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), with radar installations in Thule, Greenland; Clear, Alaska; and Yorkshire, England. A radar system known as Space Detention and Tracking System (SPADATS), operated collaboratively by the Canada and the United States, is used to track earth-orbiting artificial satellites.
See also stealth technology.
Radar was developed (c.1935–40) independently in several countries as a military instrument for detecting aircraft and ships. One of the earliest practical radar systems was devised (1934–35) by Sir Robert Watson-Watt, a Scots physicist. Although the technology evolved rapidly during World War II, radar improved immensely following the war, the principal advances being higher power outputs, greater receiver sensitivity, and improved timing and signal-processing circuits. In 1946 radar beams from the earth were reflected back from the moon. Radar contact was established with Venus in 1958 and with the sun in 1959, thereby opening a new field of astronomy—radar astronomy.
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