This article is about the general term "atmosphere". For specific information about the Earth's atmosphere, see Atmosphere of Earth. For other uses, see Atmosphere (disambiguation)
View of Jupiter's active atmosphere, including the Great Red Spot. An atmosphere (New Latin atmosphaera, created in the 17th century from Greek ἀτμός [atmos] "vapor" and σφαῖρα [sphaira] "sphere") is a layer ofgases surrounding a planet or other material body of sufficient mass that is held in place by the gravity of the body. An atmosphere is more likely to be retained if the gravity is high and the atmosphere's temperature is low. Earth's atmosphere, which contains oxygen used by most organisms for respiration and carbon dioxide used by plants, algae and cyanobacteria forphotosynthesis, also protects living organisms from genetic damage by solar ultraviolet radiation. Its current composition 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 starting from the opaque photosphere outwards. Stars with sufficiently low temperatures may form compound molecules in their outer atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure is the force per unit area that is always applied perpendicularly to a surface by the surrounding gas. It is determined by a planet's gravitational force in combination with the total mass of a column of gas above a location. On Earth, units of air pressure are based on the internationally recognized standard atmosphere (atm), which is defined as 101,325 Pa (or 1,013,250 dynes per cm2). One (atm) equals 14.696 pounds per square inch (psi). The pressure of an atmospheric gas decreases with altitude due to the diminishing mass of gas above each location. 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 mean molecular mass of dry air times the planet's gravitational force per unit area of on the surface of the earth. For such a model atmosphere, the pressure declines exponentially with increasing altitude. However, atmospheres are not uniform in temperature, so the exact determination of the atmospheric pressure at any particular altitude is more complex. Surface gravity, the force that holds down an atmosphere, differs significantly among the planets. For example, the large gravitational force of the giant planet Jupiter is able to retain 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 its molecules' thermal motion exceed the planet's escape velocity, the speed at which gas molecules overcome a planet's gravitational grasp. Thus, the distant and cold Titan, Triton, and Pluto are able to retain their atmospheres despite relatively low gravities. Interstellar planets, theoretically, may also retain thick atmospheres. Since a gas at any particular temperature will have molecules moving at a wide range of velocities, there will almost always be some 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 both lost much of their water when, after being photo dissociated into hydrogen and oxygen by solar ultraviolet, 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 the Earth may have lost gases through the magnetic polar regions due to auroral...
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