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 "How can we "see" using the Infrared?"

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How can we "see" using the Infrared?

Since the primary source of infrared radiation is heat or thermal radiation, any object which has a temperature radiates in the infrared. Even objects that we think of as being very cold, such as an ice cube, emit infrared. When an object is not quite hot enough to radiate visible light, it will emit most of its energy in the infrared. For example, hot charcoal may not give off light but it does emit infrared radiation which we feel as heat. The warmer the object, the more infrared radiation it emits.

Humans, at normal body temperature, radiate most strongly in the infrared at a wavelength of about 10 microns. (A micron is the term commonly used in astronomy for a micrometer or one millionth of a meter.) This image ( which is courtesy of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at CalTech), shows a man holding up a lighted match! Which parts of this image do you think have the warmest temperature? How does the temperature of this man's glasses compare to the temperature of his hand? Infrared man D

Infrared image of a cat.D To make infrared pictures like the one above, we can use special cameras and film that detect differences in temperature, and then assign different brightnesses or false colors to them. This provides a picture that our eyes can interpret.

The image at the left (courtesy of SE-IR Corporation, Goleta, CA) shows a cat in the infrared. The orange areas are the warmest and the white-blue areas are the coldest. This image gives us a different view of a familiar animal as well as information that we could not get from a visible light picture.

Humans may not be able to see infrared light, but did you know that snakes in the pit viper family, like rattlesnakes, have sensory "pits", which are used to image infrared light? This allows the snake to detect warm blooded animals, even in dark burrows! Snakes with 2 sensory pits are even thought to have some depth perception in the infrared! (Thanks to NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center for help with the text in this section.)

Many things besides people and animals emit infrared light - the Earth, the Sun, and far away things like stars and galaxies do also! For a view from Earth orbit, whether we are looking out into space or down at Earth, we can use instruments on board satellites.