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Richard Wrigley

Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR)


In this essay I intend to describe the technical specifics of ASAR, describe its remote
sensing technique, examine measurements made by ASAR as well as discuss future
measurements, and discuss the importance of ASAR’s measurements.

Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) is an advanced model of the Synthetic

Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument. ASAR was launched on the European Space
Agency (ESA) mission ENVISAT in 2002. ENVISAT is used for Earth observation.
The ASAR instrument is an active remote sensor used to study features of the Earth
such as sea surface winds, topography of the Earth and natural hazards.

Technical Concept of ASAR and SAR

ASAR uses synthetic aperture radar to obtain images over its observation area.
Synthetic aperture radar involves using pulsed-Doppler radar that emits short bursts of
radio pulses to obtain an image of the targeted area.

ASAR is able to transmit several hundred pulses while ENVISAT passes over a
certain object. These pulses backscatter (reflect) in many different directions due to
the shape and composition of the object that is being studied. The backscattered
pulses can be manipulated using signal processing to produce an image that would
have only previously been obtained by placing a large antenna in orbit, which would
be too expensive. ASAR therefore provides a cheaper alternative for high resolution
imaging of the Earth by creating a synthetic aperture.

However, if the processor onboard ASAR used all the backscattered pulses to produce
an image of the object being studied, this said image would contain speckle.

Speckle is a type of interference or ‘noise’ caused by ASAR’s fine resolution and how
coherent the pulse signals are. It is created by particular objects on the Earth’s surface
that reflect the pulsed signal well when ASAR is viewing these objects from a
particular angle.

This speckle can be minimised by processing the data obtained over a certain object
in stages. If for example a quarter of the returned samples were processed first to
obtain a prediction for the cross-section of the object, a basic image of the object can
be produced. Then another quarter of the samples are processed to obtain another
prediction of the cross-section it will produce another basic image, which can be
averaged with the first quarter’s sample. This would be combined with the third and
fourth quarters’ samples to produce a final image. This method is called the ‘4-looks’
method, as ASAR effectively looks at the same object four times to produce its’ final
image (See fig 1.1). This method however, is not restricted to four looks. The
speckle of an image is reduced more by more looks.

The range of ASAR is described as ‘the distance along the view of the radar system.’
(Source: PA2604 lecture 9 slides, J. J. Remedios). As ASAR’s radar view is

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perpendicular to the velocity of ENVISAT, it means that it ASAR views along the
path that ENVISAT is travelling. (See fig 1.2) The slanted range of the radar is
equivalent to the ASAR’s radar distance. Also, the ground range of ASAR refers to
distance along the surface of the Earth.

The spatial resolution of ASAR is achieved by gating the signal for range as well as
measuring the Doppler shift. The Doppler shift is the change in the velocity of the
transmitted radio wave. ASAR can achieve a spatial resolution generally around 30m.
Although when ASAR is at certain angles it has been able to image long roads, and oil

The range resolution (δy) can be expressed as:

δy = ∆r/(2sinθ) = cτp/(2sinθ) [1.1] (Source: PA2604 lecture 9 slides, J. J. Remedios).

Where ∆r is the pulse length of the radar. θ is the incidence angle (which in ASAR’s
case is between 15 and 45 degrees (Source Kongsberg Satellite Services)). τp is the
duration of the pulse. Finally, c is the speed of light.

The azimuth resolution (where the azimuth is perpendicular to the track of ENVISAT)
is expressed as:

δx = D/2 [1.2] (Source: PA2604 lecture 9 slides, J. J. Remedios).

Where δx is the azimuth resolution, D is the width of the antenna. D is affected by

the swath width, which can extend up to 400km.

ASAR is calibrated by the European Space Agency. ESA calculates an external

scaling factor, which uses three transponders. ASAR is calibrated by taking estimates
from the elevation pattern, which are obtained by scanning targets on the Earth’s
surface that already have known properties. For example vegetation such as grassland,
forests, rain forests etc. The value for the elevation pattern taken by ASAR is then
compared to the estimates, which allows for calibration of the instrument. (Source:
ASAR Product Handbook, ESA).

ASAR operates in two modes, as a conventional stripmap SAR (also known as the
image mode) and also as a ScanSAR (See fig 1.3). When operating in the image
mode, the antenna array has the flexibility to allow ASAR to alter the swath width by
varying the size of the pulsed-Doppler beam and the angle of incidence. (The angle at
which the beam hits the Earth). When ASAR is operating in the image mode it
generally has a swath width of between 56 to 100km and a resolution of about 30m.
(Source: Eurimage Products & Services). Although the image mode allows a precise
measurement of an area, its swath is small. This means that the area studied by ASAR
be small as well. Although precision is useful to study small areas, ENVISAT is
intended to study the entire Earth’s surface. Therefore ASAR needs to be able to scan
larger areas. This is achieved by using the ScanSAR principle. The swath width of
ASAR is increased by electronically steering the elevation of the antenna beam of
ASAR. The images are created by scanning the angle of incidence, as well as
synthesising images for the multiple beam positions. Each area scanned is known as a

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sub-swath. One sub-swath is scanned by the radar, then the following, until all the
swaths have been scanned in order to achieve full image coverage area of the swath.
ASAR has five determined sub-swaths that overlap each other to effectively cover the
entire swath. This is able to achieve a swath of 400km, but has a resolution of only
150m, meaning that it is not effective at imaging areas in depth, unlike stripmap SAR.

In addition, ASAR utilizes another measurement mode, the Alternating Polarisation

Mode (See fig 1.3). This is a modified version of the ScanSAR technique. Instead of
scanning at multiple angles of incidence, it scans a single swath at two polarisations
(HH and VV). This produces two images of the same area that can be combined to
produce a more detailed image of the area than what could have been achieved with a
single polarity.

Remote Sensing Technique Used

ASAR is an active sensor, as it uses a man-made radiation source to study the surface
of the Earth. This has several advantages over passive sensing, which depends on
natural sources of radiation e.g. visible light. ASAR can operate at night, as it is not
dependant on visible light. It can study objects that are obscured by cloud cover. As
one of ASAR’s main objectives is to study the Earth’s oceans, it has to be use short
radio waves otherwise there would not be a decent amount of backscatter in order
produce a decent image.

ENVISAT has a polar orbit. The orbit is also sun synchronous, meaning that
ENVISAT stays still relative to the position of the sun. This means that as ENVISAT
stays ‘still’ as the Earth rotates, meaning that ENVISAT can fly over any position on
the Earth’s longitude. Its polar orbit means that ENVISAT can fly over any position
along the Earth’s latitude. This means that over a given amount of time ENVISAT
will be able to cover the entire surface of the Earth, and therefore so can ASAR.

The data obtained by ASAR is downloaded in real time to its ground receiving station.
If ENVISAT is out of range of its receiving stations, then the data is stored on
ENVISAT’s onboard tape recorder until it is in range of a station. (Source Kongsberg
Satellite Services.) However, its high data rate of ASAR limits it operational time to
approximately 30 minutes per orbit. One orbit of ENVISAT takes 101 minutes to
complete, meaning that ASAR is only operational approximately 30% of the time.

The frequency used by ASAR is in the C-band, which has a frequency range from 4 to
8GHz, and a wavelength range of 3.7 to 7.5cm. (See Table 1) This is important, as
one of ASAR’s main goals is to study the ocean surfaces. A small wavelength is
needed to produce a decent amount of backscatter. If ASAR used a long wavelength,
then it would not produce a large amount of backscatter from the ocean, meaning that
there would only be reflection over water and the oceans would appear dark on
images produced by ASAR.

ASAR also uses Interferometric processing where two views of the same location on
the Earth are combined together to create an image showing the change of phase of
the backscattered waves from both viewing positions (See fig 1.4). This is a similar
to the effect in a Michelson Interferometer, and is used to study shifts in the Earth’s
terrain. (E.g. earthquakes)

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Applications, Measurements and Future Measurements

Due to the fact that ASAR can still observe the Earth at night, and through clouds,
added to the fact that it is very precise at measuring distances means that ASAR’s
primary measurements and observations include sea ice monitoring. This involves
studying the movements of icebergs, and studying the amount and rate of ice breaking
away from the polar icecaps due to climate change and other factors. Studying the
movements of ice can also allow safer navigation of the oceans by ships, real time
data is relayed to icebreakers and allows redirection of sea vessels. The measurement
for the flow of ice can also be used to forecast the weather.

Cartography (mapping) is another application of ASAR. This can be used to produce

up to date maps for navigation as well as Earth Observation Science.

Surface deformation detection uses the interferometer on ASAR to study the effects
from the Earth’s tectonic activity. A prime example of this is the study the shift of
land after an earthquake. Another example will be the distortion caused by an
eruption of a volcano. Interferometric testing conducted by ASAR can be used
hopefully in the future to be able to predict an earthquake.

Glacier monitoring is also one of the main applications of ASAR. ASAR detects the
movements and shrinking of glaciers. This provides vital information on the affect
climate change is having to the Earth. The method used to monitor the movements of
glaciers is similar to the method used to measure the surface deformation.

ASAR also monitors the change in snowfall over one location over a given amount of
time. Again, this is vital to research into climate change, but also has more practical
purposes for human habitation of that area. It can warn against a build up of snow
that could lead to an avalanche, and possibly even provide weather and snow
conditions for ski resorts.

Other applications include crop production forecasting and forest cover mapping.
When an image produced by ASAR contains a higher level of backscatter than usual,
it means that the terrain being observed is ‘rougher’ than usual. This most likely is
due to vegetation. ASAR can therefore can over time study the change in vegetation
over particular areas, by studying the change in ‘roughness’ over an area. Two
examples of this could be imaging the destruction of the rain forest by manmade on
non-manmade influences, and the decrease in crop production over areas that have
been affected by long periods of drought.

One of the most important uses of ASAR is to study the wave spectra of oceans. As
mentioned in the section ‘Basic Sensing Technique Used’ this requires a short
wavelength to produce good quality images of the ocean surface, as larger
wavelengths would not result in enough backscatter for ASAR to image the oceans
without looking black.

Other applications and measurements made by ASAR include urban planning, and the
study of coastal erosion.

ASAR has also been used to study the extent of damages caused by natural disasters.

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Two of these that caught the attention most of the public would be the damaged
caused to South East Asia by the tsunami in December 2004, and the disaster in
Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005.

Current and future measurements conducted by ASAR include the mapping of

Antarctica, the Amazon Rainforests, and creating ‘snapshots’ or the Artic ice.

Importance of Measurements

ASAR’s numerous measurements and applications are vital for many applications
back on Earth.

Its ability to accurately map the movements of ice flows is vital for safe navigation of
the oceans. It allows icebreaker ships to clear paths through unexpected ice flows, as
well as being able to redirect ships about to enter these flows, thus preventing
numerous maritime disasters.

The monitoring of glacier movements, changes in snowfall, and the reduction of the
size of the polar ice caps provides further evidence to support the theory that climate
change is having a negative impact on the Earth’s environment. This evidence is
helping to persuade many international statesmen to reform their environmental
policies, and helps support the idea of lowering carbon emissions to reduce the impact
of climate change.

Its imaging of the rainforests and the reduction of its area by manmade factors
(logging, farming, etc.) again will help to persuade politicians to enforce stricter
controls on companies operating in the rainforests.

ASAR also provides vital images and measurements of disaster areas. These images
will aid in the future redevelopment of these areas, as they will they can be used to
show areas where it would be safer to rebuild to avoid such damage if a similar
disaster were to happen in the area.

Its interferometer, which is able to study the impact of earthquakes and volcano
eruptions, is being used to be try to predict the location and date of future

The measurements made of the oceans, allows us to study their wave and tidal
characteristics, study ocean fronts, the dynamics water at coastal areas, and detect oil


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To summarize, ASAR is an active sensor with a polar orbit. It uses pulsed-Doppler

radar to transmit short radio pulses in order to obtain images of the surface of the

Its synthetic aperture is created by combining of samples the radar received, and
combining multiple readings together.

The ASAR instrument is used to carry out numerous measurements and observations.
It is primarily used for studying the ocean currents and surfaces, studying the change
in vegetation (e.g. rainforests, crops), the study of earthquakes and volcanoes, as well
as the study of climate change.

This means that ASAR is vital to for the study of climate change, its measurements
and evidence gathered can be vital to help persuade politicians to implement schemes
to reduce human impact on the Earth.



L. Marelli, “SAR Image Quality” 1st Edition, ESA Scientific & Technical Publications
Branch, 1980.

R. H. Stewart, “Methods of Satellite Oceanography” 1st Edition, University of

California Press, 1985.

“A Dictionary of Space Exploration (Oxford Paperback Reference S.” 1st Edition,

Oxford University Press, 2005.


2604 Lecture Slides (Lecture 9):

ASAR Product Handbook (ESA):

ESA Missions:

Kongsberg Satellite Services:

Eurimage Products and Services:

Appendix: Images, Diagrams and Tables

Richard Wrigley

Fig 1.1


First image taken with one look. Second image is of same object, but with multiple




Fig 1.3

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Image Mode

ScanSAR Mode

Alternating Polarisation Mode (Source:

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Table 1

Band Frequency Range / GHz Wavelength Range / cm

P-band 0.4-1 30-75
L-band 1-2 15-30
S-band 2-4 7.5-15
C-band 4-8 3.7-5
X-band 8-1 2.5-3.7
Table of frequency bands. (Source: PA2604 lecture 9 slides, J. J. Remedios).

Fig 1.4

Interferogram of around Istanbul, which shows a ground displacement of 28 mm