Monday, March 16, 2009

Near, Mid and Far-Infrared

Infrared is usually divided into 3 spectral regions: near, mid and far-infrared. The boundaries between the near, mid and far-infrared regions are not agreed upon and can vary. The main factor that determines which wavelengths are included in each of these three infrared regions is the type of detector technology used for gathering infrared light.

Near-infrared observations have been made from ground based observatories since the 1960's. They are done in much the same way as visible light observations for wavelengths less than 1 micron, but require special infrared detectors beyond 1 micron. Mid and far-infrared observations can only be made by observatories which can get above our atmosphere. These observations require the use of special cooled detectors containing crystals like germanium whose electrical resistance is very sensitive to heat.

Infrared radiation is emitted by any object that has a temperature (ie radiates heat). So, basically all celestial objects emit some infrared. The wavelength at which an object radiates most intensely depends on its temperature. In general, as the temperature of an object cools, it shows up more prominently at farther infrared wavelengths. This means that some infrared wavelengths are better suited for studying certain objects than others.

Visible (courtesy of Howard McCallon), near-infrared (2MASS), and mid-infrared (ISO) view of the Horsehead Nebula. Image assembled by Robert Hurt.

As we move from the near-infrared into mid and far-infrared regions of the spectrum, some celestial objects will appear while others will disappear from view. For example, in the above image you can see how more stars (generally cooler stars) appear as we go from the visible light image to the near-infrared image. In the near-infrared, the dust also becomes transparent, allowing us to see regions hidden by dust in the visible image. As we go to the mid-infrared image, the cooler dust itself glows. The table below highlights what we see in the different infrared spectral regions.
(degrees Kelvin)
(0.7-1) to 5
740 to (3,000-5,200)
Cooler red stars
Red giants
Dust is transparent
5 to (25-40)
(92.5-140) to 740
Planets, comets and asteroids
Dust warmed by starlight
Protoplanetary disks
(25-40) to (200-350)
(10.6-18.5) to (92.5-140)
Emission from cold dust
Central regions of galaxies
Very cold molecular clouds

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