Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 6

What is Infrared Radiation?

The light we see with our eyes is really a very small portion of what is called the "Electromagnetic Spectrum." The Electromagnetic Spectrum
includes all types of radiation - from the X-rays used at hospitals, to radio waves used for communication, and even the microwaves you cook
food with.
Radiation in the Electromagnetic Spectrum is often categorized by wavelength. Short wavelength radiation is of the highest energy and can be
very dangerous - Gamma, X-rays and ultraviolet are examples of short wavelength radiation. Longer wavelength radiation is of lower energy and
is usually less harmful - examples include radio, microwaves and infrared. A rainbow shows the optical (visible) part of the Electromagnetic
Spectrum and infrared (if you could see it) would be located just beyond the red side of the rainbow.

Although infrared radiation is not visible, humans can sense it - as heat. Put your hand next to a hot oven if you want to experience infrared
radiation "first-hand!
Why study Infrared Radiation from space?
Astronomers have found that infrared radiation is especially useful when trying to probe areas of our universe that are surrounded by clouds of
gas and dust. Because of infrared's longer wavelength, it can pass right through these clouds and reveal details invisible by observing other types
of radiation. Especially interesting are areas were stars and planets are forming and the cores of galaxies where it is believed huge black holes
might reside.

The image on the left shows an optical view of a star forming region. The same area is shown
on the right in infrared radiation. Notice how the infrared observations penetrate the obscuring
cloud to reveal many new details.
How will Gemini "see" infrared better?Astronomers use special sensors to detect infrared radiation from space, but it's not easy. Because heat is
given off by many objects (including the telescope and cameras themselves), everything must be carefully designed, and/or cooled to very cold

Gemini has been designed to perform especially well when observing infrared radiation. This includes selecting the locations for the telescopes.
Both scopes are located on high mountains where the air is very dry. Since atmospheric water vapor absorbs, or "soaks-up", infrared radiation,
this was a very important consideration when selecting the sites for the Gemini telescopes. Gemini will also use special Silver coatings on its
mirrors to reflect significantly more infrared radiation than the metals (usually aluminum) used on most other telescope mirrors.
Return to the Public Page

Peter Michaud / pmichaud@gemini.edu / February 8, 1999

Infrared (IR) light is a wavelength of energy that is invisible to the human eye. The most common source of this energy is heat;
objects can have their relative temperatures measured by how much of this energy they give off. Lower wavelengths or "near
infrared" closest to the visible light color red are not hot, and are often used to transmit data in electronics. A remote control,
for example, may use a particular wavelength of near infrared to communicate with a receiver, sending pulses of light that transmit a
signal to the device, telling it what to do.
Description and Measurement

A form of energy, IR is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This spectrum is comprised of radio waves; microwaves; infrared,
visible, and ultraviolet light; x-rays; and gamma rays. Each form of energy is ordered by wavelength; infrared falls between
microwaves and visible light waves because its waves are shorter than microwaves but longer than those of visible light.
The prefix infra comes from the Latin word which means "below;" the term means "below red," indicating its position in the
electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light has a range of wavelengths that are manifested in the seven colors of the rainbow; red has
the longest wavelength and violet has the shortest. Infrared, with wavelengths longer than the color red, is invisible to the human
Just like with visible light, there are a range of wavelengths of IR. The International Commission on Illumination has divided it into
three general sections based on the length of the wave and density. These groups are commonly known as near, medium, and far
infrared, with near infrared being nearest to the visible light side of the spectrum and far, or long-wave, being close to the microwave
zone. There are uses for IR wavelengths in each group, from wireless communication to acting as heat source.
Nearly all objects emit heat or energy, and one of the most easily discernible forms of energy is infrared. When an object is not hot
enough to give off visible light, it emits most of its energy in the IR spectrum. It is this heat that affords IR many applications in
almost every sector of life, including health, science, industry, art, and entertainment.
Converting infrared energy, also known as radiant heat, into an image that the human eye can see and understand is done with a
process called thermal imaging. An IR camera is used to accurately measure the temperature of an object, which is then translated
into color. For example, infrared imaging typically shows the warmest areas in a human body as red, followed by yellow, green, blue,
and violet as the temperature decreases. By studying how body heat is distributed, thermal imaging can health professionals to
analyze body tissue and fluid to detect injury or disease.
Infrared light is used in night vision equipment, allowing the user to see in the dark. Two types of night vision both use IR: thermal
and image-intensifying. Thermal night vision allows the user to recognize people and objects by the heat pattern they emit.
Intensifiers amplify existing light including infrared to allow the user to see.
As a way to measure temperature, IR is used in many different types of applications. The military uses infrared sensors to locate
and track targets or to detect hidden land mines or arms caches. Sensors on satellites are used for environmental monitoring,
pinpointing areas of pollution, fire, or deforestation. Search and rescue operations use IR extensively to locate missing persons lost
in the forest or jungle, as well as in collapsed buildings or at the site of other disasters.
Many remote control devices in homes use infrared. These remotes use this type of light to carry signals between a remote control
transmitter and the device it's commanding. The transmitter sends out light in pulses, which are translated into binary codes that
have corresponding commands. The receiver is positioned on the front of the device, where it receives these pulses of light and
decodes them into binary data, which is understood by the microprocessor inside the apparatus.
Many different types of scientists use infrared in their work, from astronomers use it to learn more about galaxies light years away to
archaeologists who use it when studying ancient settlements. Infrared is being used to preserve, restore, and conserve valuable
historical and artistic works as well; the invisible details of ancient fragments and images painted under paintings are being brought
to light through the use of IR technology. In industry, thermal imaging is invaluable in testing and monitoring mechanical systems.

What Is Infrared?
An image of Earth in infrared wavelengths shows relative temperatures around the world. The photo includes a
plume of carbon monoxide pollution near the Rim Fire that burned near Yosemite National Park in California on Aug.
26, 2013.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Infrared radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation, as are radio waves, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and
microwaves. Infrared (IR) light is the part of the EM spectrum that people encounter most in everyday life, although
much of it goes unnoticed. It is invisible to human eyes, but people can feel it as heat.
IR radiation is one of the three ways heat is transferred from one place to another, the other two being convection
and conduction. Everything with a temperature above about 5 degrees Kelvin (minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit or
minus 268 degrees Celsius) emits IR radiation. The sun gives off half of its total energy as IR, and much of its visible
light is absorbed and re-emitted as IR, according to the University of Tennessee.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, incandescent bulbs convert only about 10 percent of their
electrical energy input into visible light energy; about 90 percent is converted to infrared radiation. Household
appliances such heat lamps and toasters use IR radiation to transmit heat, as do industrial heaters such as those
used for drying and curing materials. These appliances generally emit blackbody radiation with a peak energy
output below the wavelength of visible, though some energy is emitted as visible red light.
A TV remote control uses IR waves to change channels. In the remote, an IR light-emitting diode (LED) or laser
sends out binary coded signals as rapid on/off pulses, according to NASA. A detector in the TV converts these light
pulses to electrical signals that instruct a microprocessor to change the channel, adjust the volume or perform other
actions. IR lasers can be used for point-to-point communications over distances of a few hundred meters or yards.
Wavelength and frequency
Electromagnetic (EM) radiation is transmitted in waves or particles at different wavelengths and frequencies. This
broad range of wavelengths is known as the electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum is generally divided into
seven regions in order of decreasing wavelength and increasing energy and frequency. The common designations
are radio waves, microwaves, infrared (IR), visible light, ultraviolet (UV), X-rays and gamma-rays.

Infrared waves are longer than those of visible light, just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. Infrared (IR)
falls in the range of the (EM) spectrum between microwaves and visible light. It has frequencies from about 3 GHz
up to about 400 THz and wavelengths of about 30 centimeters (12 inches) to 740 nanometers (0.00003 inches),
although these values are not definitive.
British astronomer William Herschel discovered infrared light in 1800, according to NASA. In an experiment to
measure the difference in temperature between the colors in the visible spectrum, he placed thermometers in the
path of light within each color of the visible spectrum. He observed an increase in temperature from blue to red,
including an even warmer temperature measurement just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.
Infrared sensing
One of the most useful applications of the IR spectrum is in sensing and detection. All objects on Earth emit IR
radiation, or heat, which can be detected by electronic sensors, such as those used in night-vision goggles and
infrared cameras. A simple example of such a sensor is the bolometer, which consists of a telescope with a
temperature-sensitive resistor, or thermistor, at its focal point. If a warm body comes into this instrument's field of
view, the heat causes a detectable change in the voltage across the thermistor. Night-vision cameras use a more
sophisticated version of a bolometer. These cameras typically contain charge-coupled-device (CCD) imaging chips
that are sensitive to IR light. The image formed by the CCD can then be reproduced in visible light. These systems
can be made small enough to be used in hand-held devices or wearable night-vision goggles. They can also be used
for gun sights with or without the addition of an IR laser for targeting.
Infrared spectroscopy measures IR emissions from materials at specific wavelengths. The IR spectrum of a
substance will show characteristic dips and peaks when photons are absorbed or emitted by electrons in molecules
as they transition between orbits, or energy levels. This information can then be used to identify substances and
monitor chemical reactions. According to Robert Mayanovic, professor of physics at Missouri State University,
infrared spectroscopy, such as Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, is highly useful for numerous
scientific applications. These include the study of molecular systems and 2D materials such as graphene.
Infrared astronomy
The California Institute of Technology (CalTech) describes infrared astronomy as "the detection and study of the
infrared radiation (heat energy) emitted from objects in the universe." Advances in IR CCD imaging systems have
allowed for detailed observation of the distribution of IR sources, revealing complex structures in nebulae, galaxies
and the large-scale structure of the universe.
One of the advantages of IR observation is that it can detect objects that are too cool to emit visible light. This has
led to the discovery of previously unknown objects such as comets, asteroids and wispy interstellar dust clouds that
seem to be prevalent throughout the entire galaxy. IR astronomy is particularly useful for observing cold molecules
of gas and also dust particles in the interstellar medium to determine their chemical makeup, said Robert Patterson,
professor of astronomy at Missouri State University. These observations are conducted using specialized chargedcoupled device (CCD) detectors that are sensitive to IR photons.
Another advantage of IR radiation is that because of its longer wavelength, it is less subject to scattering than is
visible light. Whereas visible light can be absorbed or reflected by gas and dust particles, the longer IR waves
simply go around these small obstructions. Because of this property, IR can be used to observe objects whose light
is obscured by gas and dust. Such objects include newly forming stars imbedded in nebulae or the center of Earth's
Most IR observations are conducted by satellites to avoid atmospheric interference. One of the more prominent of
these satellites was the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), which produced images of the sky at wavelengths of
12, 25, 60 and 100 micrometers (m). Its imaging sensor had to be cooled to 2 K (minus 456 F) using 161 lbs. (73
kilograms) of superfluid liquid helium, which limited the satellite's mission to only 10 months. However, over that
period it completed a survey covering 96 percent of the sky. It identified several asteroids, comets and interstellar
dust clouds, and it produced the first images of the galactic core. The data produced is still being used today to
guide observations at other wavelengths.
Since then, a number of satellites have been launched to make more detailed observations of specific objects and
limited areas of the sky. However, there was not another complete sky survey conducted until 2006 when the
Japanese space agency JAXA launched the satellite AKIRI, which is Japanese for "light." This satellite's improved
cryogenic system allowed its mission to reach 18 months, about 50 percent more than IRAS. AKIRI also had more
sensitive and higher-resolution sensors than IRAS, resulting in some truly remarkable images containing a wealth of
new data


A remote control uses light waves just beyond the visible spectrum of lightinfrared light wavesto change
channels on your TV. This region of the spectrum is divided into near-, mid-, and far-infrared. The region from 8 to
15 microns (m) is referred to by Earth scientists as thermal infrared since these wavelengths are best for studying
the longwave thermal energy radiating from our planet.

A typical television remote control uses infrared energy at a wavelength around 940 nanometers. While you cannot
"see" the light emitting from a remote, some digital and cell phone cameras are sensitive to that wavelength of
radiation. Try it out!

Infrared lamps heat lamps often emit both visible and infrared energy at wavelengths between 500nm to 3000nm
in length. They can be used to heat bathrooms or keep food warm. Heat lamps can also keep small animals and
reptiles warm or even to keep eggs warm so they can hatch.

Credit: Troy Benesch

In 1800, William Herschel conducted an experiment measuring the difference in temperature between the colors in
the visible spectrum. He placed thermometers within each color of the visible spectrum. The results showed an
increase in temperature from blue to red. When he noticed an even warmer temperature measurement just beyond
the red end of the visible spectrum, Herschel had discovered infrared light!
We can sense some infrared energy as heat. Some objects are so hot they also emit visible lightsuch as a fire
does. Other objects, such as humans, are not as hot and only emit only infrared waves. Our eyes cannot see these
infrared waves but instruments that can sense infrared energysuch as night-vision goggles or infrared cameras
allow us to "see" the infrared waves emitting from warm objects such as humans and animals. The temperatures
for the images below are in degrees Fahrenheit.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Many objects in the universe are too cool and faint to be detected in visible light but can be detected in the
infrared. Scientists are beginning to unlock the mysteries of cooler objects across the universe such as planets, cool
stars, nebulae, and many more, by studying the infrared waves they emit.
The Cassini spacecraft captured this image of Saturn's aurora using infrared waves. The aurora is shown in blue,
and the underlying clouds are shown in red. These aurorae are unique because they can cover the entire pole,
whereas aurorae around Earth and Jupiter are typically confined by magnetic fields to rings surrounding the
magnetic poles. The large and variable nature of these aurorae indicates that charged particles streaming in from
the Sun are experiencing some type of magnetism above Saturn that was previously unexpected.


Infrared waves have longer wavelengths than visible light and can pass through dense regions of gas and dust in
space with less scattering and absorption. Thus, infrared energy can also reveal objects in the universe that cannot
be seen in visible light using optical telescopes. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has three infrared
instruments to help study the origins of the universe and the formation

galaxies, stars, and planets.
When we look up at the constellation Orion, we see only the visible light. But NASA's Spitzer space telescope was
able to detect nearly 2,300 planet-forming disks in the Orion nebula by sensing the infrared glow of their warm
dust. Each disk has the potential to form planets and its own solar system. Credit: Thomas Megeath (Univ. Toledo)
et al., JPL, Caltech, NASA
A pillar composed of gas and dust in the Carina Nebula is illuminated by the glow from nearby massive stars shown
below in the visible light image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Intense radiation and fast streams of charged
particles from these stars are causing new stars to form within the pillar. Most of the new stars cannot be seen in
the visible-light image (left) because dense gas clouds block their light. However, when the pillar is viewed using
the infrared portion of the spectrum (right), it practically disappears, revealing the baby stars behind the column of
gas and dust.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
To astrophysicists studying the universe, infrared sources such as planets are relatively cool compared to the
energy emitted from hot stars and other celestial objects. Earth scientists study infrared as the thermal emission
(or heat) from our planet. As incident solar radiation hits Earth, some of this energy is absorbed by the atmosphere
and the surface, thereby warming the planet. This heat is emitted from Earth in the form of infrared radiation.
Instruments onboard Earth observing satellites can sense this emitted infrared radiation and use the resulting
measurements to study changes in land and sea surface temperatures.
There are other sources of heat on the Earth's surface, such as lava flows and forest fires. The Moderate Resolution
Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument onboard the Aqua and Terra satellites uses infrared data to
monitor smoke and pinpoint sources of forest fires. This information can be essential to firefighting efforts when
fire reconnaissance planes are unable to fly through the thick smoke. Infrared data can also enable scientists to
distinguish flaming fires from still-smoldering burn scars.

Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team

Credit: Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Richard Kohrs, designer

The global image on the right is an infrared image of the Earth taken by the GOES 6 satellite in 1986. A scientist
used temperatures to determine which parts of the image were from clouds and which were land and sea. Based
on these temperature differences, he colored each separately using 256 colors, giving the image a realistic
Why use the infrared to image the Earth? While it is easier to distinguish clouds from land in the visible range,
there is more detail in the clouds in the infrared. This is great for studying cloud structure. For instance, note that
darker clouds are warmer, while lighter clouds are cooler. Southeast of the Galapagos, just west of the coast of
South America, there is a place where you can distinctly see multiple layers of clouds, with the warmer clouds at
lower altitudes, closer to the ocean that's warming them.
We know, from looking at an infrared image of a cat, that many things emit infrared light. But many things also
reflect infrared light, particularly near infrared light. Learn more about REFLECTED Near-infrared radiation.