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Night vision is a spy or action movie you've seen, in which someone straps on a pair of night-vision goggles to find someone else in a dark building on a moonless night. And you may have wondered "Do those things really work? Can you actually see in the dark?"
The answer is most definitely yes. With the proper night-vision equipment, you can see a person standing over 200 yards (183 m) away on a moonless, cloudy night! Night vision can work in two very different ways, depending on the technology used.
  • Image enhancement - This works by collecting the tiny amounts of light, including the lower portion of the infrared light spectrum, that are present but may be imperceptible to our eyes, and amplifying it to the point that we can easily observe the image.
  • Thermal imaging - This technology operates by capturing the upper portion of the infrared light spectrum, which is emitted as heat by objects instead of simply reflected as light. Hotter objects, such as warm bodies, emit more of this light than cooler objects like trees or buildings.
We have two major night-vision technologies. We'll also discuss the various types of night-vision equipment and applications. 
But first, let's talk about infrared light.

Infrared Light

In order to understand night vision, it is important to understand something about light. The amount of energy in a light wave is related to its wavelength: Shorter wavelengths have higher energy. Of visible light, violet has the most energy, and red has the least. Just next to the visible light spectrum is the infraredspectrum.
light spectrum
Infrared light is a small part of the light spectrum.
Infrared light can be split into three categories:
  • Near-infrared (near-IR) - Closest to visible light, near-IR has wavelengths that range from 0.7 to 1.3 microns, or 700 billionths to 1,300 billionths of a meter.
  • Mid-infrared (mid-IR) - Mid-IR has wavelengths ranging from 1.3 to 3 microns. Both near-IR and mid-IR are used by a variety of electronic devices, including remote controls.
  • Thermal-infrared (thermal-IR) - Occupying the largest part of the infrared spectrum, thermal-IR has wavelengths ranging from 3 microns to over 30 microns.
The key difference between thermal-IR and the other two is that thermal-IR is emitted by an object instead of reflected off it. Infrared light is emitted by an object because of what is happening at the atomiclevel.
Atoms
Atoms are constantly in motion. They continuously vibrate, move and rotate. Even the atoms that make up the chairs that we sit in are moving around. Solids are actually in motion! Atoms can be in different states of excitation. In other words, they can have different energies. If we apply a lot of energy to an atom, it can leave what is called the ground-state energy level and move to an excited level. The level of excitation depends on the amount of energy applied to the atom via heat, light or electricity.

An atom consists of a nucleus (containing the protons and neutrons) and an electron cloud. Think of the electrons in this cloud as circling the nucleus in many different orbits. Although more modern views of the atom do not depict discrete orbits for the electrons, it can be useful to think of these orbits as the different energy levels of the atom. In other words, if we apply some heat to an atom, we might expect that some of the electrons in the lower energy orbitals would transition to higher energy orbitals, moving farther from the nucleus.
atom
An atom has a nucleus and an electron cloud.
Once an electron moves to a higher-energy orbit, it eventually wants to return to the ground state. When it does, it releases its energy as a photon -- a particle of light. You see atoms releasing energy as photons all the time. For example, when the heating element in a toaster turns bright red, the red color is caused by atoms excited by heat, releasing red photons. An excited electron has more energy than a relaxed electron, and just as the electron absorbed some amount of energy to reach this excited level, it can release this energy to return to the ground state. This emitted energy is in the form of photons (light energy). The photon emitted has a very specific wavelength (color) that depends on the state of the electron's energy when the photon is released.
Anything that is alive uses energy, and so do many inanimate items such as engines and rockets. Energy consumption generates heat. In turn, heat causes the atoms in an object to fire off photons in the thermal-infrared spectrum. The hotter the object, the shorter the wavelength of the infrared photon it releases. An object that is very hot will even begin to emit photons in the visible spectrum, glowing red and then moving up through orange, yellow, blue and eventually white. 
In night vision, thermal imaging takes advantage of this infrared emission. In the next section, we'll see just how it does this.

Thermal Imaging
Here's how thermal imaging works:
  1. A special lens focuses the infrared light emitted by all of the objects in view.
  2. The focused light is scanned by a phased array of infrared-detector elements. The detector elements create a very detailed temperature pattern called a thermogram. It only takes about one-thirtieth of a second for the detector array to obtain the temperature information to make the thermogram. This information is obtained from several thousand points in the field of view of the detector array.
  3. The thermogram created by the detector elements is translated into electric impulses.
  4. The impulses are sent to a signal-processing unit, a circuit board with a dedicated chip that translates the information from the elements into data for the display.
  5. The signal-processing unit sends the information to the display, where it appears as various colors depending on the intensity of the infrared emission. The combination of all the impulses from all of the elements creates the image.
thermal imaging system
Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.
The basic components of a thermal-imaging system

Types of Thermal Imaging Devices

Most thermal-imaging devices scan at a rate of 30 times per second. They can sense temperatures ranging from -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) to 3,600 F (2,000 C), and can normally detect changes in temperature of about 0.4 F (0.2 C).

day
Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.
It is quite easy to see everything during the day...
night
Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.
...but at night, you can see very little.
thermal imaging
Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.
Thermal imaging lets you see again.

There are two common types of thermal-imaging devices:
  • Un-cooled - This is the most common type of thermal-imaging device. The infrared-detector elements are contained in a unit that operates at room temperature. This type of system is completely quiet, activates immediately and has the battery built right in.
  • Cryogenically cooled - More expensive and more susceptible to damage from rugged use, these systems have the elements sealed inside a container that cools them to below 32 F (zero C). The advantage of such a system is the incredible resolution and sensitivity that result from cooling the elements. Cryogenically-cooled systems can "see" a difference as small as 0.2 F (0.1 C) from more than 1,000 ft (300 m) away, which is enough to tell if a person is holding a gun at that distance!
While thermal imaging is great for detecting people or working in near-absolute darkness, most night-vision equipment uses image-enhancement technology.


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