The infrared covers the electromagnetic spectrum from roughly 300 GHz (1 mm) to 400 THz (750 nm). It can be divided into three parts:
- Far-infrared, from 300 GHz (1 mm) to 30 THz (10 μm). The lower part of this range may also be called microwaves. This radiation is typically absorbed by so-called rotational modes in gas-phase molecules, by molecular motions in liquids, and by phonons in solids. The water in the Earth's atmosphere absorbs so strongly in this range that it renders the atmosphere effectively opaque. However, there are certain wavelength ranges ("windows") within the opaque range which allow partial transmission, and can be used for astronomy. The wavelength range from approximately 200 μm up to a few mm is often referred to as "sub-millimetre" in astronomy, reserving far infrared for wavelengths below 200 μm.
- Mid-infrared, from 30 to 120 THz (10 to 2.5 μm). Hot objects (black-body radiators) can radiate strongly in this range. It is absorbed by molecular vibrations, where the different atoms in a molecule vibrate around their equilibrium positions. This range is sometimes called the fingerprint region since the mid-infrared absorption spectrum of a compound is very specific for that compound.
- Near-infrared, from 120 to 400 THz (2,500 to 750 nm). Physical processes that are relevant for this range are similar to those for visible light.