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Mars's thin atmosphere Mars atmosphere.jpg
Mars's thin atmosphere
The layers of Earth's atmosphere Atmosphere layers-en.svg
The layers of Earth's atmosphere

An atmosphere (from Ancient Greek ἀτμός (atmos), meaning 'vapour', and σφαῖρα (sphaira), meaning 'ball' or 'sphere' [1] [2] ) is a layer or a set of layers of gases surrounding a planet or other material body, that is held in place by the gravity of that body. An atmosphere is more likely to be retained if the gravity it is subject to is high and the temperature of the atmosphere is low.


The atmosphere of Earth is composed of nitrogen (about 78%), oxygen (about 21%), argon (about 0.9%), carbon dioxide (0.03%) and other gases in trace amounts. [3] Oxygen is used by most organisms for respiration; nitrogen is fixed by bacteria and lightning to produce ammonia used in the construction of nucleotides and amino acids; and carbon dioxide is used by plants, algae and cyanobacteria for photosynthesis. The atmosphere helps to protect living organisms from genetic damage by solar ultraviolet radiation, solar wind and cosmic rays. The current composition of the Earth's atmosphere is the product of billions of years of biochemical modification of the paleoatmosphere by living organisms.

The term stellar atmosphere describes the outer region of a star and typically includes the portion above the opaque photosphere. Stars with sufficiently low temperatures may have outer atmospheres with compound molecules.


Atmospheric pressure at a particular location is the force per unit area perpendicular to a surface determined by the weight of the vertical column of atmosphere above that location. On Earth, units of air pressure are based on the internationally recognized standard atmosphere (atm), which is defined as 101.325 kPa (760  Torr or 14.696 psi). It is measured with a barometer.

Atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing altitude due to the diminishing mass of gas above. The height at which the pressure from an atmosphere declines by a factor of e (an irrational number with a value of 2.71828...) is called the scale height and is denoted by H. For an atmosphere with a uniform temperature, the scale height is proportional to the temperature and inversely proportional to the product of the mean molecular mass of dry air and the local acceleration of gravity at that location. For such a model atmosphere, the pressure declines exponentially with increasing altitude. However, atmospheres are not uniform in temperature, so estimation of the atmospheric pressure at any particular altitude is more complex.

Atmospheric escape

Surface gravity differs significantly among the planets. For example, the large gravitational force of the giant planet Jupiter retains light gases such as hydrogen and helium that escape from objects with lower gravity. Secondly, the distance from the Sun determines the energy available to heat atmospheric gas to the point where some fraction of its molecules' thermal motion exceed the planet's escape velocity, allowing those to escape a planet's gravitational grasp. Thus, distant and cold Titan, Triton, and Pluto are able to retain their atmospheres despite their relatively low gravities.

Since a collection of gas molecules may be moving at a wide range of velocities, there will always be some fast enough to produce a slow leakage of gas into space. Lighter molecules move faster than heavier ones with the same thermal kinetic energy, and so gases of low molecular weight are lost more rapidly than those of high molecular weight. It is thought that Venus and Mars may have lost much of their water when, after being photodissociated into hydrogen and oxygen by solar ultraviolet radiation, the hydrogen escaped. Earth's magnetic field helps to prevent this, as, normally, the solar wind would greatly enhance the escape of hydrogen. However, over the past 3 billion years Earth may have lost gases through the magnetic polar regions due to auroral activity, including a net 2% of its atmospheric oxygen. [4] The net effect, taking the most important escape processes into account, is that an intrinsic magnetic field does not protect a planet from atmospheric escape and that for some magnetizations the presence of a magnetic field works to increase the escape rate. [5]

Other mechanisms that can cause atmosphere depletion are solar wind-induced sputtering, impact erosion, weathering, and sequestration—sometimes referred to as "freezing out"—into the regolith and polar caps.


Atmospheres have dramatic effects on the surfaces of rocky bodies. Objects that have no atmosphere, or that have only an exosphere, have terrain that is covered in craters. Without an atmosphere, the planet has no protection from meteoroids, and all of them collide with the surface as meteorites and create craters.

Most meteoroids burn up as meteors before hitting a planet's surface. When meteoroids do impact, the effects are often erased by the action of wind. [6] As a result, craters are rare on objects with atmospheres.[ clarification needed ]

Wind erosion is a significant factor in shaping the terrain of rocky planets with atmospheres, and over time can erase the effects of both craters and volcanoes. In addition, since liquids can not exist without pressure, an atmosphere allows liquid to be present at the surface, resulting in lakes, rivers and oceans. Earth and Titan are known to have liquids at their surface and terrain on the planet suggests that Mars had liquid on its surface in the past.


Earth's atmospheric gases scatter blue light more than other wavelengths, giving Earth a blue halo when seen from space Top of Atmosphere.jpg
Earth's atmospheric gases scatter blue light more than other wavelengths, giving Earth a blue halo when seen from space

A planet's initial atmospheric composition is related to the chemistry and temperature of the local solar nebula during planetary formation and the subsequent escape of interior gases. The original atmospheres started with a rotating disc of gases that collapsed to form a series of spaced rings that condensed to form the planets. The planet's atmospheres were then modified over time by various complex factors, resulting in quite different outcomes.

The atmospheres of the planets Venus and Mars are primarily composed of carbon dioxide, with small quantities of nitrogen, argon, oxygen and traces of other gases. [7]

The composition of Earth's atmosphere is largely governed by the by-products of the life that it sustains. Dry air from Earth's atmosphere contains 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and traces of hydrogen, helium, and other "noble" gases (by volume), but generally a variable amount of water vapor is also present, on average about 1% at sea level. [8]

The low temperatures and higher gravity of the Solar System's giant planetsJupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—allow them more readily to retain gases with low molecular masses. These planets have hydrogen–helium atmospheres, with trace amounts of more complex compounds.

Two satellites of the outer planets possess significant atmospheres. Titan, a moon of Saturn, and Triton, a moon of Neptune, have atmospheres mainly of nitrogen. When in the part of its orbit closest to the Sun, Pluto has an atmosphere of nitrogen and methane similar to Triton's, but these gases are frozen when it is farther from the Sun.

Other bodies within the Solar System have extremely thin atmospheres not in equilibrium. These include the Moon (sodium gas), Mercury (sodium gas), Europa (oxygen), Io (sulfur), and Enceladus (water vapor).

The first exoplanet whose atmospheric composition was determined is HD 209458b, a gas giant with a close orbit around a star in the constellation Pegasus. Its atmosphere is heated to temperatures over 1,000 K, and is steadily escaping into space. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and sulfur have been detected in the planet's inflated atmosphere. [9]


Earth's atmosphere

Earth's atmosphere consists of a number of layers that differ in properties such as composition, temperature and pressure. The lowest layer is the troposphere, which extends from the surface to the bottom of the stratosphere. Three quarters of the atmosphere's mass resides within the troposphere, and is the layer within which the Earth's terrestrial weather develops. The depth of this layer varies between 17 km at the equator to 7 km at the poles. The stratosphere, extending from the top of the troposphere to the bottom of the mesosphere, contains the ozone layer. The ozone layer ranges in altitude between 15 and 35 km, and is where most of the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun is absorbed. The top of the mesosphere, ranges from 50 to 85 km, and is the layer wherein most meteors burn up. The thermosphere extends from 85 km to the base of the exosphere at 400 km and contains the ionosphere, a region where the atmosphere is ionized by incoming solar radiation. The ionosphere increases in thickness and moves closer to the Earth during daylight and rises at night allowing certain frequencies of radio communication over a greater range. The Kármán line, located within the thermosphere at an altitude of 100 km, is commonly used to define the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space. The exosphere begins variously from about 690 to 1,000 km above the surface, where it interacts with the planet's magnetosphere. Each of the layers has a different lapse rate, defining the rate of change in temperature with height.


Other astronomical bodies such as sun, moon, Mercury, etc have known atmospheres.

In the Solar System

Graphs of escape velocity against surface temperature of some Solar System objects showing which gases are retained. The objects are drawn to scale, and their data points are at the black dots in the middle. Solar system escape velocity vs surface temperature.svg
Graphs of escape velocity against surface temperature of some Solar System objects showing which gases are retained. The objects are drawn to scale, and their data points are at the black dots in the middle.

Outside the Solar System


The circulation of the atmosphere occurs due to thermal differences when convection becomes a more efficient transporter of heat than thermal radiation. On planets where the primary heat source is solar radiation, excess heat in the tropics is transported to higher latitudes. When a planet generates a significant amount of heat internally, such as is the case for Jupiter, convection in the atmosphere can transport thermal energy from the higher temperature interior up to the surface.


From the perspective of a planetary geologist, the atmosphere acts to shape a planetary surface. Wind picks up dust and other particles which, when they collide with the terrain, erode the relief and leave deposits (eolian processes). Frost and precipitations, which depend on the atmospheric composition, also influence the relief. Climate changes can influence a planet's geological history. Conversely, studying the surface of the Earth leads to an understanding of the atmosphere and climate of other planets.

For a meteorologist, the composition of the Earth's atmosphere is a factor affecting the climate and its variations.

For a biologist or paleontologist, the Earth's atmospheric composition is closely dependent on the appearance of the life and its evolution.

See also

Related Research Articles

Troposphere The lowest layer of Earths atmosphere

The troposphere is the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere, and is also where nearly all weather conditions take place. It contains 75% of the atmosphere's mass and 99% of the total mass of water vapour and aerosols. The average height of the troposphere is 18 km in the tropics, 17 km in the middle latitudes, and 6 km in the polar regions in winter. The total average height of the troposphere is 13 km.

The thermosphere is the layer in the Earth's atmosphere directly above the mesosphere and below the exosphere. Within this layer of the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation causes photoionization/photodissociation of molecules, creating ions; the thermosphere thus constitutes the larger part of the ionosphere. Taking its name from the Greek θερμός meaning heat, the thermosphere begins at about 80 km (50 mi) above sea level. At these high altitudes, the residual atmospheric gases sort into strata according to molecular mass. Thermospheric temperatures increase with altitude due to absorption of highly energetic solar radiation. Temperatures are highly dependent on solar activity, and can rise to 1,700 °C (3,100 °F) or more. Radiation causes the atmosphere particles in this layer to become electrically charged particles, enabling radio waves to be refracted and thus be received beyond the horizon. In the exosphere, beginning at about 600 km (375 mi) above sea level, the atmosphere turns into space, although, by the judging criteria set for the definition of the Kármán line, the thermosphere itself is part of space.

The exosphere is a thin, atmosphere-like volume surrounding a planet or natural satellite where molecules are gravitationally bound to that body, but where the density is too low for them to behave as a gas by colliding with each other. In the case of bodies with substantial atmospheres, such as Earth's atmosphere, the exosphere is the uppermost layer, where the atmosphere thins out and merges with interplanetary space. It is located directly above the thermosphere. Very little is known about it due to lack of research. Mercury, the Moon and three Galilean satellites of Jupiter have surface boundary exospheres, which are exospheres without a denser atmosphere underneath. The Earth's exosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, with some heavier atoms and molecules near the base.

Atmospheric science Study of the atmosphere, its processes, and its interactions with other systems

Atmospheric science is the study of the Earth's atmosphere and its various inner-working physical processes. Meteorology includes atmospheric chemistry and atmospheric physics with a major focus on weather forecasting. Climatology is the study of atmospheric changes that define average climates and their change over time, due to both natural and anthropogenic climate variability. Aeronomy is the study of the upper layers of the atmosphere, where dissociation and ionization are important. Atmospheric science has been extended to the field of planetary science and the study of the atmospheres of the planets and natural satellites of the solar system.

Atmosphere of Earth Gas layer surrounding Earth: Mostly nitrogen, uniquely high in oxygen, with trace amounts of other molecules

The atmosphere of Earth is the layer of gases, commonly known as air, retained by Earth's gravity, surrounding the planet Earth and forming its planetary atmosphere. The atmosphere of Earth protects life on Earth by creating pressure allowing for liquid water to exist on the Earth's surface, absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention, and reducing temperature extremes between day and night.

Venera 4

Venera 4, also designated 4V-1 No.310 was a probe in the Soviet Venera program for the exploration of Venus. The probe comprised an entry probe, designed to enter the Venus atmosphere and parachute to the surface, and a carrier/flyby spacecraft, which carried the entry probe to Venus and served as a communications relay for the entry probe.

The heterosphere is the layer of an atmosphere where the gases are separated out by molecular diffusion with increasing altitude such that lighter species become more abundant relative to heavier species. The heavier molecules and atoms tend to be present in the lower layers of the heterosphere while the lighter ones are present higher up. The exact boundaries between the different molecules vary according to temperature and solar activity. The heterosphere extends from the turbopause to the edge of a planet's atmosphere and lies directly above the homosphere.

Index of meteorology articles Wikipedia index

This is a list of meteorology topics. The terms relate to meteorology, the interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere that focuses on weather processes and forecasting.

Ice giant

An ice giant is a giant planet composed mainly of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. There are two ice giants in the Solar System: Uranus and Neptune.

Atmospheric escape Loss of planetary atmospheric gases to outer space

Atmospheric escape is the loss of planetary atmospheric gases to outer space. A number of different mechanisms can be responsible for atmospheric escape; these processes can be divided into thermal escape, non-thermal escape, and impact erosion. The relative importance of each loss process depends on the planet's escape velocity, its atmosphere composition, and its distance from its star. Escape occurs when molecular kinetic energy overcomes gravitational energy; in other words, a molecule can escape when it is moving faster than the escape velocity of its planet. Categorizing the rate of atmospheric escape in exoplanets is necessary to determining whether an atmosphere persists, and so the exoplanet's habitability and likelihood of life.

Atmosphere of Mars

The atmosphere of Mars is the layer of gases surrounding Mars. It is primarily composed of carbon dioxide (95.32%), molecular nitrogen (2.6%) and argon (1.9%). It also contains trace levels of water vapor, oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and other noble gases. The atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than Earth's. The surface pressure is only about 610 pascals (0.088 psi) which is less than 1% of the Earth's value. The currently thin Martian atmosphere prohibits the existence of liquid water at the surface of Mars, but many studies suggest that the Martian atmosphere was much thicker in the past. The highest atmospheric density on Mars is equal to the density found 35 km above the Earth's surface. The atmosphere of Mars has been losing mass to space throughout history, and the leakage of gases still continues today.

Terraforming of Mars hypothetical modification of Mars into a habitable planet

The terraforming of Mars is a hypothetical procedure that would consist of a planetary engineering project or concurrent projects, with the goal of transforming the planet from one hostile to terrestrial life to one that can sustainably host humans and other lifeforms free of protection or mediation. The process would presumably involve the rehabilitation of the planet's extant climate, atmosphere, and surface through a variety of resource-intensive initiatives, and the installation of a novel ecological system or systems.

Terraforming of Venus

The terraforming of Venus is the hypothetical process of engineering the global environment of the planet Venus in such a way as to make it suitable for human habitation. Terraforming Venus was first proposed in a scholarly context by the astronomer Carl Sagan in 1961, although fictional treatments, such as The Big Rain of The Psychotechnic League by novelist Poul Anderson, preceded it. Adjustments to the existing environment of Venus to support human life would require at least three major changes to the planet's atmosphere:

  1. Reducing Venus' surface temperature of 737 K
  2. Eliminating most of the planet's dense 9.2 MPa (91 atm) carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide atmosphere via removal or conversion to some other form
  3. The addition of breathable oxygen to the atmosphere.
Atmosphere of Venus

The atmosphere of Venus is the layer of gases surrounding Venus. It is composed primarily of carbon dioxide and is much denser and hotter than that of Earth. The temperature at the surface is 740 K, and the pressure is 93 bar (9.3 MPa), roughly the pressure found 900 m (3,000 ft) underwater on Earth. The Venusian atmosphere supports opaque clouds of sulfuric acid, making optical Earth-based and orbital observation of the surface impossible. Information about the topography has been obtained exclusively by radar imaging. Aside from carbon dioxide, the other main component is nitrogen. Other chemical compounds are present only in trace amounts.

Atmosphere of the Moon Very scant presence of gases surrounding the Moon

The atmosphere of the Moon is a very scant presence of gases surrounding the Moon. For most practical purposes, the Moon is considered to be surrounded by vacuum. The elevated presence of atomic and molecular particles in its vicinity compared to interplanetary medium, referred to as "lunar atmosphere" for scientific objectives, is negligible in comparison with the gaseous envelopes surrounding Earth and most planets of the Solar System. The pressure of this small mass is around 3×10−15 atm (0.3 nPa), varying throughout the day, and in total mass less than 10 metric tonnes. Otherwise, the Moon is considered not to have an atmosphere because it cannot absorb measurable quantities of radiation, does not appear layered or self-circulating, and requires constant replenishment due to the high rate at which its gases get lost into space.

Ocean world Type of planet with a surface completely covered by an ocean of water

An ocean world, ocean planet, water world, aquaplanet or panthalassic planet is a type of terrestrial planet that contains a substantial amount of water either at its surface or within a subsurface ocean. The term ocean world is also used sometimes for astronomical bodies with an ocean composed of a different fluid or thalassogen, such as lava, ammonia or hydrocarbons like on Titan's surface.

Extraterrestrial atmosphere

The study of extraterrestrial atmospheres is an active field of research, both as an aspect of astronomy and to gain insight into Earth's atmosphere. In addition to Earth, many of the other astronomical objects in the Solar System have atmospheres. These include all the gas giants, as well as Mars, Venus, and Pluto. Several moons and other bodies also have atmospheres, as do comets and the Sun. There is evidence that extrasolar planets can have an atmosphere. Comparisons of these atmospheres to one another and to Earth's atmosphere broaden our basic understanding of atmospheric processes such as the greenhouse effect, aerosol and cloud physics, and atmospheric chemistry and dynamics.

Atmosphere of Mercury Composition and properties of the atmosphere of the innermost planet of the Solar System

Mercury has a very tenuous and highly variable atmosphere containing hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10−14 bar. The exospheric species originate either from the Solar wind or from the planetary crust. Solar light pushes the atmospheric gases away from the Sun, creating a comet-like tail behind the planet.

The atmosphere of Triton is the layer of gases surrounding Triton. The surface pressure is only 14 microbars, ​170000 of the surface pressure on Earth, and it is composed of nitrogen, similar to those of Titan and Earth. It extends 800 kilometers above its surface. Recent observations have shown an increase in temperature.

Atmosphere of Jupiter Layer of gases surrounding the planet Jupiter

The atmosphere of Jupiter is the largest planetary atmosphere in the Solar System. It is mostly made of molecular hydrogen and helium in roughly solar proportions; other chemical compounds are present only in small amounts and include methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and water. Although water is thought to reside deep in the atmosphere, its directly measured concentration is very low. The nitrogen, sulfur, and noble gas abundances in Jupiter's atmosphere exceed solar values by a factor of about three.


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  2. σφαῖρα Archived 2017-05-10 at the Wayback Machine , Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
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Further reading