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Invisible Waves. Infrared Astronomy and Activities Dan Burns Los Gatos High School Lawrence Livermore National Lab Overview. What is Infrared Radiation (IR)? Discovery of IR IR Astronomy IR Observatories Classroom Activities. NASA/JPL-Caltech. IR Characteristics.

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Invisible Waves

Infrared Astronomy and Activities

Dan Burns

Los Gatos High School

Lawrence Livermore National Lab

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  • What is Infrared Radiation (IR)?

  • Discovery of IR

  • IR Astronomy

  • IR Observatories

  • Classroom Activities


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IR Characteristics

  • IR is bounded by Visible Light and Microwave Radiation

  • Wavelengths from about 0.7 to 350 microns

  • Primary Source is Thermal Radiation

  • Humans can sense it with nerves in skin

  • Snakes can “see” IR with Pits (Pit Vipers)


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Thermal Radiation

  • Emitted by materials with relatively strong molecular or atomic bonds (ie solids and liquids)

  • Every object with a T > 0 K emits thermal radiation

  • Produced by random motions of charged particles

  • Radiation peak, usually in IR, can be used to determine temperature




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William Herschel

  • German Immigrant to England

  • Discovered Uranus in 1781

  • Catalogued Night Sky with Sister Caroline

  • Discovered IR in 1800


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Herschel’s IR Experiment

  • Investigated heat of colors in spectrum

  • Temperature increased from violet to red

  • Placed a thermometer beyond red, this measured greatest temperature increase

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Student Herschel Experiment

  • Materials: Copy Paper Box, Smaller Box, White Paper, Tape, Equilateral Glass Prism, Black Paint, Timer, 3 Thermometers, Sunlight!

  • Time Required: ~ 30 minutes


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Equipment Setup



  • Paint Thermometer Bulbs Black

  • Trim and Tape Thermometers Close Together

  • Cut Opening for Prism and Mount it

  • Tape White Sheet of Paper to Bottom of box

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Procedure Outline




  • Position Box and Prism so Spectrum Shows

  • Record Shade Temperature

  • Place Thermometers, 1 each in Blue, Yellow, and IR

  • Record Temperatures at 1 minute intervals for 5 minutes

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Typical Results


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Why Infrared Astronomy?

  • Almost Everything Emits IR

  • IR Passes Through Dust

  • Exoplanets Easier to Detect in IR

  • Distant Object’s Visible Light Redshifted

  • Important Molecular Spectra in IR

Credit: ESA/ISO, SWS, A.F.M. Moorwood

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IR Reveals the Invisible


Interstellar Dust Emits IR

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Spitzer Shows a Warped Sombrero Galaxy

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Spitzer Reveals Stars and the Galloping Ghoul

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IR Uncovers What is Hidden


Spitzer Space Telescope Reveals Star Formation in DR21



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Spitzer Zooms into the Triffid Nebula

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IR Discovers Dim Objects

UK IR Telescope Discovers Brown Dwarfs and Potential Free-Floating Planets in Orion

Image courtesy of the U.K. Infrared Telescope, Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii

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IR Detects Distant Objects

Visible Light from Very Distant Galaxies is Redshifted to IR

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Important Molecular Spectral Lines are in IR

IR Space Observatory Reveals Water Molecules being Produced in Orion Nebula

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Spitzer Detects Structures in Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Dust

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Detecting IR Hydrocarbon Dust

  • Near, Mid, and Far IR

  • Atmospheric Absorption

  • IR Observatories


Image courtesy of the U.K. Infrared Telescope, Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii

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Near, Mid, and Far IR Bands Hydrocarbon Dust






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Atmosphere Impedes IR Observation Hydrocarbon Dust

  • Water Vapor Absorbs Some IR Wavelengths

  • Atmosphere Emits its own IR Radiation


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Past, Present, and Future IR Observatories Hydrocarbon Dust


ESA Herschel




Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, Caltech/JPL. IPAC is NASA's Infrared Astrophysics Data Center




Image courtesy of the U.K. Infrared Telescope, Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii



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Student Activities Hydrocarbon Dust

  • Herschel Experiment

  • IR Photo Album

  • Solar Cell IR Detector

  • Near IR Digital Camera

  • IR Detection Cards

  • Red Tide Spectrometer with LabQuest

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IR Photo Album Resources Hydrocarbon Dust for activity

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Herschel Experiment Resources Hydrocarbon Dust

  • for detailed activity

  • for prism (catalog # 3038400 $8.95) and thermometers (catalog #6638910 $13.25 for 10-Pack)

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Solar Cell IR Detector Resources Hydrocarbon Dust

  • for Mini Audio Amplifier (Catalog # 2771008 $14.99), Solar Cell (Catalog # 277-1201 $13.99),

  • 6’ Cable (Catalog # 42-2420 $3.29)

  • for detailed activity information

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Near IR Digital Camera Hydrocarbon Dust

  • Webcams, Digital Cameras, or Camcorders

  • Remove IR Blocking Filter from CCD

  • Install IR only pass filter (Wratten 87c, exposed color negative, or floppy disk)

  • Reassemble and view the world in Near IR

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IR Detection Cards Hydrocarbon Dust

  • 2 Types of Materials can Produce Visible Light When Exposed to IR from a Remote Control

  • Anti-Stokes Material Absorbs 2 or More Photons for Every Visible Photon Emitted

  • Phosphorescent Material Must be Exposed to Visible Light First

  • See Activity from KSU Physics Education Group

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Anti-Stokes Model Hydrocarbon Dust

Phosphorescent Model

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Red Tide Spectrometer Hydrocarbon Dust

  • Red Tide Spectrometer by PASCO and Vernier

  • Educational Model made by Ocean Optics

  • Automatically reads the wavelength calibration coefficients of the spectrometer and configures operating software

  • USB to PC or Mac interface; no external power requirements

  • The Red Tide starts at $1049

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California Science Standards Hydrocarbon Dust

  • Earth Science 2d: Students know that stars differ in their life cycles and that visual, radio, and X-ray telescopes may be used to collect data that reveal those differences.

  • Physics 4e: Students know radio waves, light, and X-rays are different wavelength bands in the spectrum of electromagnetic waves.

  • Chemistry 1i, 1j Students know the experimental basis for the development of the quantum theory of atomic structure and the historical importance of the Bohr model of the atom. Students know that spectral lines are the result of transitions of electrons between energy levels and that these lines correspond to photons with a frequency related hv). to the energy spacing between levels by using Planck’s relationship