radar astronomy

radar astronomy, application of radar to the determination of distances and planetary features within the solar system, such as rotation rates. A short burst of radio waves is transmitted in the direction of the object under study. The object reflects the radio waves back to earth, where they are detected by the same antenna that sent the signal. The time between sending the signal and receiving the "echo" can be precisely measured electronically. Since radio waves travel with the speed of light, the roundtrip distance from the earth to the object and back is then easily computed. This technique differs from radio astronomy in that the celestial object is here merely a passive reflector, rather than the actual source of the emission. The first yield of radar astronomy was a much improved value for the distance from the earth to the moon. Using more powerful transmitters, the distances to Venus and Mercury were also measured, as well as the planets' rotational periods and gross surface properties. Even greater precision is obtained by replacing the radio transmitter with a laser. During the Apollo project, special reflectors were installed on the moon; subsequently, by bouncing laser light off the moon the distance from the earth to the moon could be determined within centimeters. Radar observations are also useful for asteroids and comets whose orbits take them relatively near the earth. Much of the surface of Venus has been mapped by unmanned probes using radar altimeters to penetrate the cloud cover.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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