- Far infrared astronomy
Far infrared astronomy is the branch of
astronomyand astrophysicswhich deals with objects visible in far-infraredradiation (extending from 30 µmtowards submillimeter wavelengths around 450 µm).
In the far-infrared, stars are not especially bright, but we can see emission from very cold matter (140 kelvins or less) which is not seen at shorter wavelengths.
Huge, cold clouds of gas and dust in our own galaxy, as well as in nearby galaxies, glow in far-infrared light. In some of these clouds, new stars are just beginning to form. Far-infrared observations can detect these
protostars long before they "turn on" visibly by sensing the heat they radiate as they contract.
The center of our galaxy also shines brightly in the far-infrared: these emissions are from dust in
circumstellar shells around numerous old red giantstars. These stars heat up the dust and cause it to glow brightly in the infrared.
Except for the plane of our own galaxy, the brightest far-infrared object in the sky is central region of a
galaxycalled Messier 82. The nucleus of M82 radiates as much energy in the far-infrared as all of the stars in our galaxy combined. This far-infrared energy comes from dust heated by a source that is hidden from view. The central regions of most galaxies shine very brightly in the far-infrared. Many galaxies ("active galaxies") have active nuclei hidden in dense regions of dust. Others, called starburst galaxies, have an extremely high number of newly forming stars heating interstellar dust clouds. These galaxies, far outshine all others galaxies in the far-infrared.
The Earth's atmosphere is opaque over most of the far infrared, so that ground-based observations are limited to submillimetre wavelengths using high altitude telescopes such as the
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, and the Submillimeter Array. Most far-infrared astronomy is performed by satellites such as Spitzer, IRASand ISO. Future missions will include ASTRO-F, the Herschel Space Observatoryand the airborne SOFIA telescope.
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