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Parabolic antenna

A parabolic antenna is an antenna that uses a parabolic reflector, a curved surface with the cross-sectional shape of a parabola, to direct the radio waves. The most common form is shaped like a dish and is popularly called a dish antenna or parabolic dish. The main advantage of a parabolic antenna is that it has high directivity. It functions similarly to a searchlight or flashlight reflector to direct the radio waves in a narrow beam, or receive radio waves from one particular direction only. Parabolic antennas have some of the highest gains, meaning that they can produce the narrowest beamwidths, of any antenna type. In order to achieve narrow beamwidths, the parabolic reflector must be much larger than the wavelength of the radio waves used, so parabolic antennas are used in the high frequency part of the radio spectrum, at UHF and microwave (SHF) frequencies, at which the wavelengths are small enough that conveniently-sized reflectors can be used.

A typical parabolic antenna consists of a metal parabolic reflector with a small feed antenna suspended in front of the reflector at its focus, pointed back toward the reflector. The reflector is a metallic surface formed into a paraboloid of revolution and usually truncated in a circular rim that forms the diameter of the antenna. In a transmitting antenna, radio frequency current from a transmitter is supplied through a transmission line cable to the feed antenna, which converts it into radio waves. The radio waves are emitted back toward the dish by the feed antenna and reflect off the dish into a parallel beam. In a receiving antenna the incoming radio waves bounce off the dish and are focused to a point at the feed antenna, which converts them to electric currents which travel through a transmission line to the radio receiver.

At the microwave frequencies used in many parabolic antennas, waveguide is required to conduct the microwaves between the feed antenna and transmitter or receiver. Because of the high cost of waveguide runs, in many parabolic antennas the RF front end electronics of the receiver is located at the feed antenna, and the received signal is converted to a lower intermediate frequency (IF) so it can be conducted to the receiver through cheaper coaxial cable. This is called a low-noise block downconverter. Similarly, in transmitting dishes, the microwave transmitter may be located at the feed point.

The pattern of electric and magnetic fields at the mouth of a parabolic antenna is simply a scaled up image of the fields radiated by the feed antenna, so the polarization is determined by the feed antenna. In order to achieve maximum gain, the feed antenna in the transmitting and receiving antenna must have the same polarization. For example, a vertical dipole feed antenna will radiate a beam of radio waves with their electric field vertical, called vertical polarization. The receiving feed antenna must also have vertical polarization to receive them; if the feed is horizontal (horizontal polarization) the antenna will suffer a severe loss of gain.

The development of radar during World War II provided a great impetus to parabolic antenna research, and saw the evolution of shaped-beam antennas, in which the curve of the reflector is different in the vertical and horizontal directions, tailored to produce a beam with a particular shape. After the war very large parabolic dishes were built as radio telescopes. The 100 meter Green Bank Radio Telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, the first version of which was completed in 1962, is currently the world's largest fully steerable parabolic dish.

In parabolic antennas, virtually all the power radiated is concentrated in a narrow main lobe along the antenna's axis. The residual power is radiated in sidelobes, usually much smaller, in other directions. Because in parabolic antennas the reflector aperture is much larger than the wavelength, due to diffraction there are usually many narrow sidelobes, so the sidelobe pattern is complex. There is also usually a backlobe, in the opposite direction to the main lobe, due to the spillover radiation from the feed antenna that misses the reflector.