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The planet Mars has an atmosphere composed of thin layers of gases. Mars atmosphere.jpg
The planet Mars has an atmosphere composed of thin layers of gases.
The atmospheric gases around Earth scatter blue light (shorter wavelengths) more than light toward the red end (longer wavelengths) of the visible spectrum; thus, a blue glow over the horizon is seen when observing Earth from outer space. Top of Atmosphere.jpg
The atmospheric gases around Earth scatter blue light (shorter wavelengths) more than light toward the red end (longer wavelengths) of the visible spectrum; thus, a blue glow over the horizon is seen when observing Earth from outer space.
A diagram of the layers of Earth's atmosphere Atmosphere layers-en.svg
A diagram of the layers of Earth's atmosphere

An atmosphere (from Ancient Greek ἀτμός (atmós) 'vapour, steam',and σφαῖρα (sphaîra) 'sphere') [1] is a layer of gas or layers of gases that envelop a planet, and is held in place by the gravity of the planetary body. A planet retains an atmosphere when the gravity is great and the temperature of the atmosphere is low. A stellar atmosphere is the outer region of a star, which includes the layers above the opaque photosphere; stars of low temperature might have outer atmospheres containing compound molecules.


The atmosphere of Earth is composed of nitrogen (78 %), oxygen (21 %), argon (0.9 %), carbon dioxide (0.04 %) and trace gases. [2] Most organisms use oxygen for respiration; lightning and bacteria perform nitrogen fixation to produce ammonia that is used to make nucleotides and amino acids; plants, algae, and cyanobacteria use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. The layered composition of the atmosphere minimises the harmful effects of sunlight, ultraviolet radiation, solar wind, and cosmic rays to protect organisms from genetic damage. The current composition of the atmosphere of the Earth is the product of billions of years of biochemical modification of the paleoatmosphere by living organisms. [3]


The initial gaseous composition of an atmosphere is determined by the chemistry and temperature of the local solar nebula from which a planet is formed, and the subsequent escape of some gases from the interior of the atmosphere proper. The original atmosphere of the planets originated from a rotating disc of gases, which collapsed onto itself and then divided into a series of spaced rings of gas and matter that, which later condensed to form the planets of the Solar System. The atmospheres of the planets Venus and Mars are principally composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, argon and oxygen. [4]

The composition of Earth's atmosphere is determined by the by-products of the life that it sustains. Dry air (mixture of gases) 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. [5]

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. [6]

Structure of atmosphere


The atmosphere of Earth is composed of layers with different properties, such as specific gaseous composition, temperature, and pressure.

The troposphere is the lowest layer of the atmosphere. This extends from the planetary surface to the bottom of the stratosphere. The troposphere contains 75–80 % of the mass of the atmosphere, [7] and is the atmospheric layer wherein the weather occurs; the height of the troposphere varies between 17 km at the equator and 7.0 km at the poles.

The stratosphere extends from the top of the troposphere to the bottom of the mesosphere, and contains the ozone layer, at an altitude between 15 km and 35 km. It is the atmospheric layer that absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation that Earth receives from the Sun.

The mesosphere ranges from 50 km to 85 km, and is the layer wherein most meteors are incinerated before reaching the surface.

The thermosphere extends from an altitude of 85 km to the base of the exosphere at 690 km and contains the ionosphere, where solar radiation ionizes the atmosphere. The density of the ionosphere is greater at short distances from the planetary surface in the daytime and decreases as the ionosphere rises at night-time, thereby allowing a greater range of radio frequencies to travel greater distances.

The exosphere begins at 690 to 1,000 km from the surface, and extends to roughly 10,000 km, where it interacts with the magnetosphere of Earth.


Atmospheric pressure is the force (per unit-area) perpendicular to a unit-area of planetary surface, as determined by the weight of the vertical column of atmospheric gases. In said atmospheric model, the atmospheric pressure, the weight of the mass of the gas, decreases at high altitude because of the diminishing mass of the gas above the point of barometric measurement. The units of air pressure are based upon the standard atmosphere (atm), which is 101,325  Pa (equivalent to 760  Torr or 14.696  psi). The height at which the atmospheric pressure declines by a factor of e (an irrational number equal to 2.71828) is called the scale height (H). For an atmosphere of uniform temperature, the scale height is proportional to the atmospheric temperature, and is inversely proportional to the product of the mean molecular mass of dry air, and the local acceleration of gravity at the point of barometric measurement.


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. [8] 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. [9]

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. [10]

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.

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

Main article: Extraterrestrial atmosphere


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 life and its evolution.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Troposphere</span> Lowest layer of Earths atmosphere

The troposphere is the lowest layer of the atmosphere of Earth. It contains 75% of the total mass of the planetary atmosphere and 99% of the total mass of water vapor and aerosols, and is where most weather phenomena occur. From the planetary surface of the Earth, the average height of the troposphere is 18 km in the tropics; 17 km in the middle latitudes; and 6 km in the high latitudes of the polar regions in winter; thus the average height of the troposphere is 13 km.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Triton (moon)</span> Largest moon of Neptune

Triton is the largest natural satellite of the planet Neptune, and was the first Neptunian moon to be discovered, on October 10, 1846, by English astronomer William Lassell. It is the only large moon in the Solar System with a retrograde orbit, an orbit in the direction opposite to its planet's rotation. Because of its retrograde orbit and composition similar to Pluto, Triton is thought to have been a dwarf planet, captured from the Kuiper belt.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thermosphere</span> Layer of the Earths atmosphere above the mesosphere and below the exosphere

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 2,000 °C (3,630 °F) or more. Radiation causes the atmospheric particles in this layer to become electrically charged, 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 (100 km), most of the thermosphere is part of space. The border between the thermosphere and exosphere is known as the thermopause.

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 so low that the molecules are essentially collision-less. 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 outer space. It is located directly above the thermosphere. Very little is known about it due to a lack of research. Mercury, the Moon, Ceres, Europa, and Ganymede 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmospheric science</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmosphere of Earth</span> Gas layer surrounding Earth

The atmosphere of Earth is the layer of gases, known collectively as air, retained by Earth's gravity that surrounds the planet and forms its planetary atmosphere. The atmosphere of Earth creates pressure, absorbs most meteoroids and ultraviolet solar radiation, warms the surface through heat retention, allowing life and liquid water to exist on the Earth's surface, and reduces temperature extremes between day and night.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Natural environment</span> Living and non-living things on Earth

The natural environment or natural world encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally, meaning in this case not artificial. The term is most often applied to Earth or some parts of Earth. This environment encompasses the interaction of all living species, climate, weather and natural resources that affect human survival and economic activity. The concept of the natural environment can be distinguished as components:

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.

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Colonization of Venus</span> Proposed colonization of the planet Venus

The colonization of Venus has been a subject of many works of science fiction since before the dawn of spaceflight, and is still discussed from both a fictional and a scientific standpoint. However, with the discovery of Venus's extremely hostile surface environment, attention has largely shifted towards the colonization of the Moon and Mars instead, with proposals for Venus focused on habitats floating in the upper-middle atmosphere and on terraforming.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmosphere of Mars</span> Layer of gases surrounding planet Mars

The atmosphere of Mars is the layer of gases surrounding Mars. It is primarily composed of carbon dioxide (95%), molecular nitrogen (2.8%), and argon (2%). It also contains trace levels of water vapor, oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and noble gases. The atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than Earth's. The average 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 on the surface of Mars, but many studies suggest that the Martian atmosphere was much thicker in the past. The higher density during spring and fall is reduced by 25% during the winter when carbon dioxide partly freezes at the pole caps. The highest atmospheric density on Mars is equal to the density found 35 km (22 mi) above the Earth's surface and is ≈0.020 kg/m3. The atmosphere of Mars has been losing mass to space since the planet's core slowed down, and the leakage of gases still continues today. The atmosphere of Mars is colder than Earth's. Owing to the larger distance from the Sun, Mars receives less solar energy and has a lower effective temperature, which is about 210 K. The average surface emission temperature of Mars is just 215 K, which is comparable to inland Antarctica. Although Mars' atmosphere consists primarily of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect in the Martian atmosphere is much weaker than Earth's: 5 °C (9.0 °F) on Mars, versus 33 °C (59 °F) on Earth. This is because the total atmosphere is so thin that the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is very weak, leading to less warming. The daily range of temperature in the lower atmosphere is huge due to the low thermal inertia; it can range from −75 °C (−103 °F) to near 0 °C (32 °F) near the surface in some regions. The temperature of the upper part of the Martian atmosphere is also significantly lower than Earth's because of the absence of stratospheric ozone and the radiative cooling effect of carbon dioxide at higher altitudes.

The homosphere is the layer of an atmosphere where the bulk gases are homogeneously mixed due to turbulent mixing or eddy diffusion. The bulk composition of the air is mostly uniform so the concentrations of molecules are the same throughout the homosphere. The top of the homosphere is called the homopause, also known as the turbopause. Above the homopause is the heterosphere, where diffusion is faster than mixing, and heavy gases decrease in density with altitude more rapidly than lighter gases.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Terraforming of Mars</span> Hypothetical modification of Mars into a habitable planet

The terraforming of Mars or the terraformation of Mars is a hypothetical procedure that would consist of a planetary engineering project or concurrent projects, with the goal to transform Mars from a planet hostile to terrestrial life to one that can sustainably host humans and other lifeforms free of protection or mediation. The process would involve the modification 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmosphere of Venus</span> Gas layer surrounding Venus

The atmosphere of Venus is primarily of supercritical 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 (1,350 psi), 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmosphere of the Moon</span> Very scant presence of gases around 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 are lost into space.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ocean world</span> Planet containing a significant amount of water or other liquid

An ocean world, ocean planet, panthalassic planet, maritime world, water world or aquaplanet, is a type of planet that contains a substantial amount of water in the form of oceans, as part of its hydrosphere, either beneath the surface, as subsurface oceans, or on the surface, potentially submerging all dry land. 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. The study of extraterrestrial oceans is referred to as planetary oceanography.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Extraterrestrial atmosphere</span> Area of astronomical research

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 Titan. 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atmosphere of Mercury</span> Composition and properties of the atmosphere of the innermost planet of the Solar System

Mercury, being the closest to the Sun, with a weak magnetic field and the smallest mass of the recognized terrestrial planets, 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. Observations obtained in 1998 showed an increase in temperature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe</span> Proposed NASA mission to Saturn

The Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe is a mission concept study for a robotic spacecraft to deliver a single probe into Saturn to study its atmosphere. The concept study was done to support the NASA 2010 Planetary Science Decadal Survey


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Further reading