May 1961 Popular Electronics
[Table of Contents]
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NASA is currently collecting a phenomenal amount of data on the
planet Mars. No small part of the effort is to determine whether
sending humans to inhabit Mars would be feasible, or even at all
possible. In order for it to be even possible for a long-term stay,
it would be necessary for consumable resources to be accessible
by Earth Martians. Discovering water ice would be the pièce de résistance
since water is heavy and therefore very expensive to transport across
vast reaches of space. Another key bit of data needed is frequency
and size of meteor strikes on the surface since that figures directly
into survivability. Long before we had the capability or even need
to do that for Mars, NASA was doing the same sort of investigation
on our moon (as opposed to one of Mars' two moons,
Phobos and Deimos). The resolution of telescopes, all ground-based
in the day, was good enough to perform site selection surveys in
the x-y plane, but altitude data could only be inferred via estimations
based on shadow lengths along the terminator (night/day line of
demarcation) and sideways glances of peaks and valleys. That was
not good enough for planning a human expedition to the surface,
so engineers and scientists came up with a radar mapping technique
to obtain z-axis data. That effort is reported here in this May
1961 edition of Popular Electronics. More information was
needed prior to actually launching a Moon lander mission, including
sending unmanned orbiters and later manned orbiters to gather enough
data to culminate in the highly successful Apollo 11 mission
in 1969 - just 8 years later.
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Radar Explores the Moon
Electronic engineers have developed unique methods to determine
the roughness of the lunar surface
By Ken Gilmore
man has not yet set foot on the surface of the moon, Mars, or Venus,
his radar "fingers" have already reached out and touched these solar-system
neighbors of ours.
We are getting important new information from our first electronic
interplanetary trips. Scientists recently learned for example, that
Venus and other planets are not quite as far away as we had thought.
Further striking new advances in radar equipment and spectacular
progress in the techniques of analyzing and interpreting radar echoes
may soon bring answers to questions such as:
- How rough is the surface of the moon?
- Does Venus, eternally covered by its thick mantel of clouds,
rotate as does he earth - and if so, how fast? Does it have
mountains, seas, icecaps, and forests?
- Is it true that the sun has a highly variable atmosphere
of charged particles which as some scientists theorize, reaches
out beyond the earth?
- What does the dark side of Mercury look like?
- How dense are the ionized particles known to exist in space?
how thick is the cosmic dust endlessly drifting through the
- After years of speculation, what are the mysterious "canals"
Lunar color photos Underwood & Underwood
Fig. 1. Each concentric ring shown represents the lunar
area capable of reflecting radar signals of specific millisecond
Fig. 2. As the moon rotates, it also librates, so that radar
echoes vary above or below their radiated microwave frequency.
Shaded section at right represents a certain frequency band
which is located above radiated frequency.
Fig. 3. Combining both time delay and frequency selection
tells us that the radar echo came from a fixed area of the
Lunar radar echoes are long in duration since the same narrow
pulse must be reflected from a spherical surface. The echo
can be easily divided up into segments to match those in
The new branch of electronics seeking answers to these and related
questions, radar astronomy, is even younger than the more widely
known radio astronomy - itself no old-timer. Radio astronomy, touched
off in 1931 when Karl Jansky discovered the strange radio noises
of the heavens, consists mainly of listening to the static generated
by ionized gas clouds and stars throughout the universe. In radar
astronomy, on the other hand, we send out the signals ourselves,
then receive and record the echoes when they come back.
It began in 1946 when the Army Signal Corps managed to bounce
the first signal off our closest heavenly neighbor, the moon. For
the next decade, electronic techniques and equipment improved-radar
transmitters became more powerful, the receivers used to detect
the extremely weak echoes more sensitive. Finally, in early 1959,
a group of scientists at MIT's famous Lincoln Laboratory made radar
contact with Venus. Less than a year later, workers at Stanford
University got echoes from the sun - over 90 million miles away.
Until recently, all we could do with these radar contacts was
measure distance. We couldn't "see" much detail because radar beams,
like light beams, spread out as distance increases. The "tightest"
beams are about one minute (1/60th of a degree) wide. Also, the
fineness of detail which the beam can distinguish depends on its
diameter at the target. When the target is at interplanetary distances,
the beam spreads thousands of miles. Thus it has about the same
resolving power - detail-seeing ability - as the human eye. You
can see only the barest detail on the moon with the unaided eye,
and planets are simply pinpoints of light. They look about the same
to radar. Optical telescopes, on the other hand, can see far finer
For some time, researchers have been looking for a way to improve
radar's resolving power. The obvious method - narrowing the beam
- wasn't practical. Even small improvements would require tremendously
large antennas. Finally, scientists at Lincoln Laboratory came up
with an ingenious plan for improving radar's resolution - without
narrowing the beam at all. With the new method, radar resolution
now almost equals telescopic resolution on the moon, and far surpasses
it at interplanetary distances.
Listening for Echoes.
When we look at the moon, it seems to be a flat disc in the sky,
although it is really a sphere. The center of the sphere is closest
to us, the outer edges farther away.
When we bounce a radar signal off the moon, a strange thing happens.
We send out a pulse of one length, and get back a much longer echo.
This is because part of the signal bounces off the center (which
is closest) , part bounces off some distance away from the center,
and so on, all the way out to the edge. It is as though we were
getting a series of echoes from a number of different targets, each
slightly farther away than the preceding one, so that all blend
and overlap into one long echo.
If we select a small part of the signal, say the first 1/10th
that returns, we know this is the echo from the moon's center. The
next 1/10th will be from an area surrounding the center slightly
farther from us, and so on. By selecting various parts of the echo,
we can isolate echoes from various ring-shaped portions of the moon's
surface - see Fig. 1. The drawing to the right is an idealized representation
of how such an elongated return echo might look. The various parts
of the echo are from the numbered circular portions on the moon's
We have now narrowed down the portion of the moon's surface from
which the echoes are coming, but for the system to be really useful
in mapping the satellite by radar, we must narrow it down still
further. And in the moon's slight natural movement, Lincoln Laboratory
scientists found the key to doing just this. Although the face of
the moon does not rotate with respect to the earth - this is why
we always see the same side - it does wobble. Scientists call this
As the moon librates, it turns slightly in one direction, then
back in the opposite direction, and so on. As it librates in one
direction, one outer edge is moving toward earth; the other, away
from us. Now, as a radar beam strikes the entire surface of the
moon, the echo which bounces off the side coming in our direction
is slightly raised in frequency, due to the Doppler effect. (This
is the effect discovered many years ago which seems to make a train
whistle change in pitch as the train approaches, then passes you.)
The signal coming from the receding side is lowered in frequency.
The center, which remains at a constant distance, returns an echo
at the same frequency as the original signal
With various portions of the moon's surface returning echoes of
different frequencies, by tuning in only echoes of one frequency
and rejecting the rest, we can listen to echoes from any part individually.
See Fig. 2. (The order reverses, but the principle remains the same
as the moon librates back in the opposite direction.)
By tuning only for one frequency, and at the same time selecting
only one part of the returning pulse, both of our selection systems
are in operation. The only echo we receive is from the two small
spots on the moon where the two patterns overlap - see Fig. 3.
Mapping the Moon.
Using this technique, scientists have made a rough radar map
of the moon. Radar pictures made in this way will never be as sharp
as telescopic pictures of the moon that we have had for years. But
the system still has tremendous value. It can give a pretty good
idea of how rough certain parts of the moon's surface are - essential
information for a space ship landing.
The primary value of the new radar mapping technique lies in the
fact that while the resolving power of a light telescope diminishes
with distance, the resolving power of the new radar telescope does
not diminish with distance. Since the Doppler and time delay effects
used are functions of the size and speed of rotation of a planet,
and not its distance from earth) this radar system will resolve
features easily and accurately on Mars, Venus, Mercury, or any other
planet our radar is strong enough to reach. The moon is now serving
to calibrate and test the system so scientists can compare results
with known terrain. Soon, radar eyes will be turned on the planets.
This antenna has been used in both the Venus planetary radar
contact and moon-mapping activity of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.
This computer at Lincoln Laboratory analyzed 10,000,000
computations to confirm existence of weak radar echoes from
Intensity and time duration of the radar returns from Venus
matched these two curves prepared by the computer.
The planets are millions of miles away and radio energy loses
strength rapidly as it travels through space. It follows the inverse
square law, which means that if you double the distance a signal
has to travel, you end up with not one half, but the square root
of the power you had before. Since a radar signal has to travel
two ways - out to the target and then back - the strength of its
signal diminishes more rapidly. It varies inversely as the fourth
power of the distance. In other words, when you double the radar
distance, you get back only 1/16th the power.
Mapping the Planets? To reach the planets and get a return echo,
we need tremendous amounts of transmitted power - all that we can
generate. Even at maximum power, the echo that comes back is not
a sharp pip, easily received and spotted. All we get from outer
space is a lot of noise. Somewhere buried in that hash, we hope,
is the signal we want. But the signal may be as much as 10,000 times
weaker than the hash which is drowning it out.
Scientists are managing to solve the problem of detecting weak
signals by sending out a string of pulses, rather than one pulse,
lasting - in the case of the Venus contact, for example - just under
five minutes. The return signal - a lot of hash with some echoes
mixed in - is fed to a computer which electronically adds up all
the areas where the pulses ought to be. Since the returning pulses
are regular, and the noise is irregular, theoretically the pulses
will add up faster than the noise. This theory actually works in
practice. The computer, after making as many as 10,000,000 separate
computations, has spotted unmistakable echoes.
Radar astronomy, with its new techniques and improved equipment,
will soon set out on what may be the most spectacular job of its
career: mapping the planets. And when man himself actually leaves
on his first trip, his travels will be far safer, surer, and more
valuable, because the fingers of radar astronomy will have already
paved the way for him.
Working actively in the field of radar astronomy
is the Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, Calif. This 142·foot
antenna, erected by Stanford in northern Scotland, will be used
for moon-echo studies similar to those being made by Lincoln Laboratory.
Using techniques described in this article,
scientists at the Lincoln Laboratory have made this radar map of
When this system has been further improved, detailed
maps of the surface of Mars and Venus may be possible.
Posted August 5, 2013