radar, electromagnetic sensor used for detecting, locating, tracking, and recognizing objects of various kinds at considerable distances. It operates by transmitting electromagnetic energy toward objects, commonly referred to as targets, and observing the echoes returned from them. The targets may be aircraft, ships, spacecraft, automotive vehicles, and astronomical bodies, or even birds, insects, and rain. Besides determining the presence, location, and velocity of such objects, radar can sometimes obtain their size and shape as well. What distinguishes radar from optical and infrared sensing devices is its ability to detect faraway objects under adverse weather conditions and to determine their range, or distance, with precision.
Radar is an “active” sensing device in that it has its own source of illumination (a transmitter) for locating targets. It typically operates in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum—measured in hertz (cycles per second), at frequencies extending from about 400 megahertz (MHz) to 40 gigahertz (GHz). It has, however, been used at lower frequencies for long-range applications (frequencies as low as several megahertz, which is the HF [high-frequency], or shortwave, band) and at optical and infrared frequencies (those of laser radar, or lidar). The circuit components and other hardware of radar systems vary with the frequency used, and systems range in size from those small enough to fit in the palm of the hand to those so enormous that they would fill several football fields.
Radar underwent rapid development during the 1930s and ’40s to meet the needs of the military. It is still widely employed by the armed forces, where many technological advances have originated. At the same time, radar has found an increasing number of important civilian applications, notably air traffic control, weather observation, remote sensing of the environment, aircraft and ship navigation, speed measurement for industrial applications and for law enforcement, space surveillance, and planetary observation.
Radar is something that is in use all around us, although it is normally invisible. ATC (Air Traffic Control) uses radar to track planes both on the ground and in the air, and also to guide planes in for smooth landings. Police use radar to detect the speed of passing motorists. NASA uses radar to map the Earth and other planets, to track satellites and space debris and to help with things like docking and maneuvering. The military uses it to detect the enemy aircraft, ships, submarines and to guide weapons.
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