Tag Archives: ISAR

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Inverse SAR (ISAR) Enable an Amazing Range of Remote Sensing Applications

Peter Lobner

SAR Basics

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is an imaging radar that operates at microwave frequencies and can “see” through clouds, smoke and foliage to reveal detailed images of the surface below in all weather conditions. Below is a SAR image superimposed on an optical image with clouds, showing how a SAR image can reveal surface details that cannot be seen in the optical image.

Example SAR imageSource: Cassidian radar, Eurimage optical

SAR systems usually are carried on airborne or space-based platforms, including manned aircraft, drones, and military and civilian satellites. Doppler shifts from the motion of the radar relative to the ground are used to electronically synthesize a longer antenna, where the synthetic length (L) of the aperture is equal to: L = v x t, where “v” is the relative velocity of the platform and “t” is the time period of observation. Depending on the altitude of the platform, “L” can be quite long. The time-multiplexed return signals from the radar antenna are electronically recombined to produce the desired images in real-time or post-processed later.

SAR principle

Source: Christian Wolff, http://www.radartutorial.eu/20.airborne/pic/sar_principle.print.png

This principle of SAR operation was first identified in 1951 by Carl Wiley and patented in 1954 as “Simultaneous Buildup Doppler.”

SAR Applications

There are many SAR applications, so I’ll just highlight a few.

Boeing E-8 JSTARS: The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System is an airborne battle management, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, the prototypes of which were first deployed by the U.S. Air Force during the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm). The E-8 platform is a modified Boeing 707 with a 27 foot (8 meter) long, canoe-shaped radome under the forward fuselage that houses a 24 foot (7.3 meters) long, side-looking, multi-mode, phased array antenna that includes a SAR mode of operation. The USAF reports that this radar has a field of view of up to 120-degrees, covering nearly 19,305 square miles (50,000 square kilometers).


Lockheed SR-71: This Mach 3 high-altitude reconnaissance jet carried the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-1) in its nose. ASARS-1 had a claimed 1 inch resolution in spot mode at a range of 25 to 85 nautical miles either side of the flight path.  This SAR also could map 20 to 100 nautical mile swaths on either side of the aircraft with lesser resolution.

SR-71Source: http://www.wvi.com/~sr71webmaster/sr_sensors_pg2.htm

Northrop RQ-4 Global Hawk: This is a large, multi-purpose, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can simultaneously carry out electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar surveillance as well as high and low band signal intelligence gathering.

Global HawkSource: USAF

Below is a representative RQ-4 2-D SAR image that has been highlighted to show passable and impassable roads after severe hurricane damage in Haiti. This is an example of how SAR data can be used to support emergency management.

Global Hawk Haiti post-hurricane image123-F-0000X-103Source: USAF

NASA Space Shuttle: The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) used the Space-borne Imaging Radar (SIR-C) and X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (X-SAR) to map 140 mile (225 kilometer) wide swaths, imaging most of Earth’s land surface between 60 degrees north and 56 degrees south latitude. Radar antennae were mounted in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, and at the end of a deployable 60 meter mast that formed a long-baseline interferometer. The interferometric SAR data was used to generate very accurate 3-D surface profile maps of the terrain.

Shuttle STRMSource: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory

An example of SRTM image quality is shown in the following X-SAR false-color digital elevation map of Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

Shuttle STRM imageSource: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory

You can find more information on SRTM at the following link:


ESA’s Sentinel satellites: Refer to my 4 May 2015 post, “What Satellite Data Tell Us About the Earthquake in Nepal,” for information on how the European Space Agency (ESA) assisted earthquake response by rapidly generating a post-earthquake 3-D ground displacement map of Nepal using SAR data from multiple orbits (i.e., pre- and post-earthquake) of the Sentinel-1A satellite.  You can find more information on the ESA Sentinel SAR platform at the following link:


You will find more general information on space-based SAR remote sensing applications, including many high-resolution images, in a 2013 European Space Agency (ESA) presentation, “Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR): Principles and Applications”, by Alberto Moreira, at the following link:


ISAR Basics

ISAR technology uses the relative movement of the target rather than the emitter to create the synthetic aperture. The ISAR antenna can be mounted in a airborne platform. Alternatively, ISAR also can be used by one or more ground-based antennae to generate a 2-D or 3-D radar image of an object moving within the field of view.

ISAR Applications

Maritime surveillance: Maritime surveillance aircraft commonly use ISAR systems to detect, image and classify surface ships and other objects in all weather conditions. Because of different radar reflection characteristics of the sea, the hull, superstructure, and masts as the vessel moves on the surface of the sea, vessels usually stand out in ISAR images. There can be enough radar information derived from ship motion, including pitching and rolling, to allow the ISAR operator to manually or automatically determine the type of vessel being observed. The U.S. Navy’s new P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft carry the AN/APY-10 multi-mode radar system that includes both SAR and ISAR modes of operation.

The principles behind ship classification is described in detail in the 1993 MIT paper, “An Automatic Ship Classification System for ISAR Imagery,” by M. Menon, E. Boudreau and P. Kolodzy, which you can download at the following link:


You can see in the following example ISAR image of a vessel at sea that vessel classification may not be obvious to the casual observer. I can see that an automated vessel classification system is very useful.

Ship ISAR image

Source: Blanco-del-Campo, A. et al., http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=5595482&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F7361%2F5638351%2F05595482.pdf%3Farnumber%3D5595482

Imaging Objects in Space: Another ISAR (also called “delayed Doppler”) application is the use of one or more large radio telescopes to generate radar images of objects in space at very long ranges. The process for accomplishing this was described in a 1960 MIT Lincoln Laboratory paper, “Signal Processing for Radar Astronomy,” by R. Price and P.E. Green.

Currently, there are two powerful ground-based radars in the world capable of investigating solar system objects: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goldstone Solar System Radar (GSSR) in California and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. News releases on China’s new FAST radio telescope have not revealed if it also will be able to operate as a planetary radar (see my 18 February 2016 post).

The 230 foot (70 meter) GSSR has an 8.6 GHz (X-band) radar transmitter powered by two 250 kW klystrons. You can find details on GSSR and the techniques used for imaging space objects in the article, “Goldstone Solar System Radar Observatory: Earth-Based Planetary Mission Support and Unique Science Results,” which you can download at the following link:


The 1,000 foot (305 meter) Arecibo Observatory has a 2.38 GHz (S-band) radar transmitter, originally rated at 420 kW when it was installed in 1974, and upgraded in 1997 to 1 MW along with other significant upgrades to improve radio telescope and planetary radar performance. You will find details on the design and upgrades of Arecibo at the following link:


The following examples demonstrate the capabilities of Arecibo Observatory to image small bodies in the solar system.

  • In 1999, this radar imaged the Near-Earth Asteroid 1999 JM 8 at a distance of about 5.6 million miles (9 million km) from Earth. The ISAR images of this 1.9 mile 3-km) sized object had a resolution of about 49 feet (15 meters).
  • In November 1999, Arecibo Observatory imaged the tumbling Main-Belt Asteroid 216 Kleopatra. The resulting ISAR images, which made the cover of Science magazine, showed a dumbbell-shaped object with an approximate length of 134.8 miles (217 kilometers) and varying diameters up to 58.4 miles (94 kilometers).

Asteroid image  Source: Science

More details on the use of Arecibo Observatory to image planets and other bodies in the solar system can be found at the following link:


The NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory Asteroid Radar Research website also contains information on the use of radar to map asteroids and includes many examples of asteroid radar images. Access this website at the following link:



In recent years, SAR units have become smaller and more capable as hardware is miniaturized and better integrated. For example, Utah-based Barnard Microsystems offers a miniature SAR for use in lightweight UAVs such as the Boeing ScanEagle. The firm claimed that their two-pound “NanoSAR” radar, shown below, weighed one-tenth as much as the smallest standard SAR (typically 30 – 200 pounds; 13.6 – 90.7 kg) at the time it was announced in March 2008. Because of power limits dictated by the radar circuit boards and power supply limitations on small UAVs, the NanoSAR has a relatively short range and is intended for tactical use on UAVs flying at a typical ScanEagle UAV operational altitude of about 16,000 feet.

Barnard NanoSARSource: Barnard Microsystems

ScanEagle_UAVScanEagle UAV. Source: U.S. Marine Corps.

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) recently announced that its scientists had developed a miniaturized SAR on a chip, which will allow SAR systems to be made a hundred times smaller than current ones.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Source: NTU

NTU reports:

“The single-chip SAR transmitter/receiver is less than 10 sq. mm (0.015 sq. in.) in size, uses less than 200 milliwatts of electrical power and has a resolution of 20 cm (8 in.) or better. When packaged into a 3 X 4 X 5-cm (0.9 X 1.2 X 1.5 in.) module, the system weighs less than 100 grams (3.5 oz.), making it suitable for use in micro-UAVs and small satellites.”

NTU estimates that it will be 3 to 6 years before the chip is ready for commercial use. You can read the 29 February 2016 press release from NTU at the following link:


With such a small and hopefully low cost SAR that can be integrated with low-cost UAVs, I’m sure we’ll soon see many new and useful radar imaging applications.