When you pick up that TV remote to switch to your favorite channel,
you’re riding a wave-an infrared wave. Our eyes can’t see the
infrared light but our television sets can as we happily surf through
reality shows, sitcoms and sports.

Infrared has forged a distinct niche in our lifestyle. It’s as much a
tool as X-rays in the dentist chair or radio waves in our cars. Like
the other two waves, infrared is a part of the electromagnetic
spectrum. Sir Frederick William Herschel discovered it in 1800 when
he directed sunlight through a prism and measured the temperatures
from the rainbow of colors. When he dipped his thermometer into an
area beyond the red, where there appeared to be no visible sign of
light, he discovered this region had the highest temperature of all.

Herschel’s discovery was named "infrared" meaning "below the red."

Infrared is an "invisible" light that we normally think of as heat.
It’s a kind of light that our eyes can’t see, but we can still detect
it even if it’s dark, dusty or smoky.

Today infrared has many exciting and useful applications, although
most people are unaware of the role it plays in our lives. Doctors
use infrared as a medical diagnostic tool, to detect breast tumors and
monitor blood flow in our bodies. Firefighters use infrared
detection to find people trapped in smoke-filled buildings or pinpoint
the location of forest fires through dense clouds of smoke. Infrared
is used in search and rescue operations to find lost people in the
ocean and wilderness at night.

Everything in the universe emits some kind of light, just not always
the kind of light that we can see.

"There are processes and objects in the universe that we never see
just with our human senses," says astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller of
JPL/Caltech, "so we have to use our technology to extend our senses to
be able to see things that have been invisible to us."

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility, scheduled to launch this month
from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will give scientists
a new "set of eyeglasses" to see space.

"We’ll be looking for, among other things, warm discs of dust around
stars that may indicate planets are forming," says Thaller, "and we’ll
see that in warm infrared light."

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility will be able to see deep into
thick, dark and dusty regions of space, and its state-of-the-art
detectors will make this observatory a million times more sensitive
than previous infrared missions.

And finally, a factoid that only a couch potato could appreciate–this
19-hundred pound observatory is so sensitive it will be able to detect
the pulse of a TV remote control five thousand miles away!