The Earth’s atmosphere is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth’s gravity. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention (greenhouse effect), and reducing temperature extremes between day and night. Dry air contains roughly (by volume) 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038% carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1%.
The atmosphere has a mass of about five quadrillion (5×1015) tonnes, three quarters of which is within about 11 km (6.8 mi; 36,000 ft) of the surface. The atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner with increasing altitude, with no definite boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. An altitude of 120 km (75 mi) is where atmospheric effects become noticeable during atmospheric reentry of spacecraft. The Kármán line, at 100 km (62 mi), also is often regarded as the boundary between atmosphere and outer space.
A gas is one of four states of matter. Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point, boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma (physics) state in which the electrons are so energized that they leave their parent atoms from within the gas. A pure gas may be comprised of individual atoms (ie a noble gas like neon), elemental molecules made from one type of atom (ie oxygen), or compound molecules made from a variety of atoms(ie carbon dioxide). A gas mixture would contain a variety of pure gases much like the air that we breathe. What distinguishes a gas from liquids and solids is the vast separation of the individual gas particles as seen in the model to the right. This separation makes a gas invisible, in most cases, to the human observer.
Earth is the third planet from the Sun. It is the fifth largest of the eight planets in the solar system, and the largest of the terrestrial planets (non-gas planets) in the Solar System in terms of diameter, mass and density. It is also referred to as the World, the Blue Planet,[note 3] and Terra.[note 4]
Home to millions of species, including humans, Earth is the only place in the universe where life is known to exist. The planet formed 4.54 billion years ago, and life appeared on its surface within a billion years. Since then, Earth’s biosphere has significantly altered the atmosphere and other abiotic conditions on the planet, enabling the proliferation of aerobic organisms as well as the formation of the ozone layer which, together with Earth’s magnetic field, blocks harmful radiation, permitting life on land. The physical properties of the Earth, as well as its geological history and orbit, allowed life to persist during this period. The world is expected to continue supporting life for another 1.5 billion years, after which the rising luminosity of the Sun will eliminate the biosphere.
Earth’s outer surface is divided into several rigid segments, or tectonic plates, that gradually migrate across the surface over periods of many millions of years. About 71% of the surface is covered with salt-water oceans, the remainder consisting of continents and islands; liquid water, necessary for all known life, is not known to exist on any other planet’s surface.[note 5][note 6] Earth’s interior remains active, with a thick layer of relatively solid mantle, a liquid outer core that generates a magnetic field, and a solid iron inner core.
Earth interacts with other objects in outer space, including the Sun and the Moon. At present, Earth orbits the Sun once for every roughly 366.26 times it rotates about its axis. This length of time is a sidereal year, which is equal to 365.26 solar days.[note 7] The Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted 23.4° away from the perpendicular to its orbital plane, producing seasonal variations on the planet’s surface with a period of one tropical year (365.24 solar days). Earth’s only known natural satellite, the Moon, which began orbiting it about 4.53 billion years ago, provides ocean tides, stabilizes the axial tilt and gradually slows the planet’s rotation. Between approximately 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, asteroid impacts during the Late Heavy Bombardment caused significant changes to the surface environment.
Both the mineral resources of the planet, as well as the products of the biosphere, contribute resources that are used to support a global human population. The inhabitants are grouped into about 200 independent sovereign states, which interact through diplomacy, travel, trade and military action. Human cultures have developed many views of the planet, including personification as a deity, a belief in a flat Earth or in Earth being the center of the universe, and a modern perspective of the world as an integrated environment that requires stewardship.
Gravitation is a natural phenomenon by which objects with mass attract one another. In everyday life, gravitation is most commonly thought of as the agency which lends weight to objects with mass. Gravitation causes dispersed matter to coalesce, thus accounting for the existence of the Earth, the Sun, and most of the macroscopic objects in the universe. It is responsible for keeping the Earth and the other planets in their orbits around the Sun; for keeping the Moon in its orbit around the Earth; for the formation of tides; for convection, by which fluid flow occurs under the influence of a density gradient and gravity; for heating the interiors of forming stars and planets to very high temperatures; and for various other phenomena observed on Earth. Modern physics describes gravitation using the general theory of relativity, in which gravitation is a consequence of the curvature of spacetime which governs the motion of inertial objects. The simpler Newton’s law of universal gravitation provides an accurate approximation for most calculations.
The terms gravitation and gravity are mostly interchangeable in everyday use, however a distinction is made in scientific circles. “Gravitation” is a general term describing the phenomenon by which bodies with mass are attracted to one another, while “gravity” refers specifically to the force exerted by the Earth on objects in its vicinity, which depends on its mass as well as other factors, such as Earth’s rotation.
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