Radio Astronomy

Next-Generation Radar Will Map Threatening Asteroids

When the Arecibo Observatory dish in Puerto Rico collapsed in 2020, astronomers lost a powerful radio telescope and a unique radar instrument to map the surfaces of asteroids and other planetary bodies. Fortunately, a new, next-generation radar system called ngRADAR is under development, to eventually be installed at the the U.S. National Science Foundation’s 100-meter (328 ft.) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia. It will be able to track and map asteroids, with the ability to observe 85% of the celestial sphere. It will also be able to study comets, moons and planets in our Solar System.

“Right now, there is only one facility that can conduct high-power planetary radar, the 70-meter (230-foot) Goldstone antenna that is part of NASA’s Deep Space network,” said Patrick Taylor, the project director for ngRADAR and the radar division head for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “We had begun this process of developing a next generation radar system several years ago, but with the loss of Arecibo, this becomes even more important.”

The iconic Arecibo Radio Telescope, before its collapse in 2020: Credit: UCF

Planetary radar can reveal incredibly detailed information about the surfaces and makeup of asteroids, comets, planets, and moons. The ngRADAR system could provide unprecedented data on these objects. In fact, a recent test with a low-power prototype of ngRADAR at the GBT produced some of the highest resolution planetary radar images ever captured from Earth. But the hallmark of the new system will be seeking out near Earth asteroids and comets to evaluate any hazard they might present to our planet. 

“Radar is really powerful in determining the orbits of these asteroids and comets,” Taylor told Universe Today in an interview, “and the new system will deliver very precise data that will allow us to predict where these small bodies will be in the future. That will be one of the highest priority uses for the next generation radar system, where we can track and characterize near-Earth asteroids and comets to evaluate any hazard they might present to Earth in the future.”

A Radar Flashlight

Usually, radio telescopes collect weak light in the form of radio waves from distant stars, galaxies, and other energetic astronomical objects – including black holes or cold, dark objects that emit no visible light. While radio telescopes don’t take pictures in the same way visible-light telescopes do, the radio signals detected are amplified and converted into data that can be analyzed and used to create images. 

But radio telescopes can also be used to transmit and reflect radio light off planetary bodies in our Solar System. This is called planetary radar or Solar System radar.

This collage shows six planetary radar observations of 2011 AG5 a day after the asteroid made its close approach to Earth on Feb. 3, 2023. With dimensions comparable to the Empire State Building, 2011 AG5 is one of the most elongated asteroids to be observed by planetary radar to date. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What is planetary radar and how does it work?

“Essentially we have a flashlight that works in radio waves,” Taylor explained. “Our narrow flashlight beam does not look at the whole sky, but we point it in a very precise location – the surface of an asteroid or moon. We know very well what our flashlight’s properties are, so we know exactly what we send out. When we receive the echo back from wherever we pointed our flashlight, we analyze that signal and see how it changed compared to what we transmitted.”

That’s what makes planetary radar so powerful and different from any other type of astronomy.  

“When astronomers are studying light that is being made by a star, or galaxy, they’re trying to figure out its properties,” Taylor said. “But with radar, we already know what the properties of the signals are, and we leverage that to figure out the properties of whatever we bounced the signals off of. That allows us to characterize planetary bodies – like their shape, speed, and trajectory. That’s especially important for hazardous objects that might stray too close to Earth.”

In the past, planetary radar has been used to image asteroids, but also precisely measure the position and motion of the planets, allowing us to land spacecraft on Mars and to explore the outer Solar System. The technique has also made surprising discoveries, such as the finding the presence of water ice on Mercury.  

The 70m telescope at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California’s Mojave Desert. (NASA/JPL)

Because radio waves are much longer than visible light waves, radio astronomy requires large antennas. The 70-meter Goldstone antenna located in California’s Mojave Desert, is primarily used to communicate with spacecraft as part of NASA’s Deep Space network. But it is also frequently used for planetary radar to study near Earth asteroids, and — as previously mentioned — is the only facility currently available to perform high-power planetary radar. (There are, however, are smaller facilities that can perform planetary radar, including smaller telescopes at the Goldstone site and a few in Australia, but they do not have the same scale of transmitter power as the Goldstone 70-meter dish.) Previously, the workhorse for planetary radar was the 1,000-foot-diameter (305 meters) Arecibo Observatory, which was about 20 times more sensitive and could detect asteroids about twice as far away than the Goldstone 70 meter.

However, because Arecibo’s dish was stationary and built inside a round sinkhole, it was fixed to the Earth and could only view whatever part of the sky happened to be straight overhead. That meant Arecibo’s dish could only see about one-third of the sky. Goldstone is fully steerable, can see about 80 percent of the sky, can track objects several times longer per day, and can image asteroids at finer spatial resolution.

ngRADAR

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. The maneuverability of its large 100-meter dish allows it to quickly track objects across its field of view, and see 85% of the sky.

The GBT’s new radar system will introduce a high-resolution tool that will be a vast upgrade, collecting data at higher resolutions and at wavelengths not previously available. Scientists at GBT and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) are also developing advanced data reduction and analysis tools that have not been available before, providing astronomers with unprecedented planetary radar capabilities.

To test out the proof of concept, Taylor and his team worked with the company Raytheon — a long-time developer of radar systems for both the military and science applications — to build a small version of the transmitter, with a lot less power.

“Our friends at Raytheon built a transmitter that could output 700 watts, so about half the power of a microwave oven,” Taylor said. “Ultimately, we want to build a system with 500 kilowatts, so up by a factor of a thousand. But even with 700 watts, we were able to do some really impressive observations.”

Radar image of the Apollo 15 landing site. Credit: Raytheon/NRAO.

GBT’s planetary radar was aimed at the Moon, specifically at the Apollo 15 landing site in Hadley Rille, and at the giant Tycho Crater’s surface, and radar echoes were received with NRAO’s ten 25-meter VLBA antennas. At Tycho, the crater was captured with 5-meter resolution, showing unprecedented detail of the Moon’s surface from Earth. Taylor said the resolution with the ngRADAR prototype approached the optical resolution on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, taking images with its high-resolution cameras from orbit around the Moon.

“The images of the crater floor were actually breathtaking,” Taylor said. “It’s pretty amazing what we’ve been able to capture so far, using less power than a common household appliance.”

A Synthetic Aperture Radar image of the Moon’s Tycho Crater, showing 5-meter resolution detail. Image credit Raytheon.

Additionally, the prototype radar also detected a potentially hazardous asteroid named (231937) 2001 FO32, which happened to be flying past Earth at about six times more distant than the Moon during their radar pings. The asteroid is considered potentially hazardous because of its size, approximately 1 kilometer in diameter, along with how close it can get to Earth, at just over 2 million kilometers away during the observations in 2021. The asteroid’s detection appeared as a spike in their data.

“Just from the spike in our data, we can now figure out how fast this object is moving, determine its orbit, and figure out its trajectory in the future,” Taylor explained. “We can determine its impact risk and assess how much of a hazard it is, and even constrain its spin state, its size, its composition, its scattering properties, and so on. So, even though the data spike doesn’t look like much, that one little detection can tell you a lot of information about the asteroid.”

Radar signals transmitted by the GBT will reflect off astronomical objects, and those reflected signals will be received by the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a network of ten observing stations located across the United States.

“The idea is for GBT is to do the transmitting almost constantly and the VLBA — either all ten of those or any subset of those telescopes — doing the receiving,” Taylor said. “This new system will allow us to characterize the surfaces of many different objects in a different frequency or wavelength that hasn’t been used before.”

Next: Part 2 of this series will look at the details of ngRADAR, the history of planetary radar, and take you up close to the GBO.

The Green Bank Observatory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory are facilities of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) operated under cooperative agreement with Associated Universities, Incorporated.  The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the NSF, and the implementation of any radar system on these facilities would be subject to NSF review and approval.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Nancy_A and and Instagram at and https://www.instagram.com/nancyatkinson_ut/

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