What is the Average Surface Temperature of Mercury?

Of all the planets in the Solar System, Mercury is the closest to our Sun. As such, you would think it is the hottest of all the Solar planets. But strangely enough, it is not. That honor goes to Venus, which experiences an average surface temperature of 750 K (477 °C; 890 °F). Not only that, but Mercury is also cold enough in some regions to maintain water in ice form.

Overall, Mercury experiences considerable variations in temperatures, ranging from the extremely hot to the extremely cold. All of this arises from the fact that Mercury has an extremely thin atmosphere, as well as the nature of its orbit. Whereas the side facing the Sun experiences temperatures hot enough to melt lead, the darkened areas are cold enough to freeze water.

Orbital Characteristics:

Mercury has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205). Because of this, its distance from the Sun varies between 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion). And with an average orbital velocity of 47.362 km/s (29.429 mi/s), it takes Mercury a total 87.969 Earth days to complete a single orbit around the Sun.

With an average rotational speed of 10.892 km/h (6.768 mph), Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation. This means that Mercury has a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2, which means that it completes three rotations on its axis for every two orbits around the Sun. This does not, however, mean that three days last the same as two years on Mercury.

In fact, its high eccentricity and slow rotation mean that it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day), which means that one day is twice as long as a single year on Mercury. The planet also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027° compared to Jupiter’s 3.1°, (the second smallest). This means that there is virtually no seasonal variation in surface temperature.

Exosphere:

Another factor that affects Mercury’s surface temperatures is its extremely thin atmosphere. Mercury is essentially too hot and too small to retain anything more than a variable “exosphere”, one which is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor.

The Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer on board MESSENGER has found that the solar wind is able to bear down on Mercury enough to blast particles from its surface into its wispy atmosphere. Credit: Carolyn Nowak/Media Academica, LLC

These trace gases have a combined atmospheric pressure of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.

Surface Temperatures:

Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences considerable variations in temperature between its light side and dark side. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C; 800 °F), the side in shadow dips down to 100 K (-173° C: -279 °F).

Despite its extreme highs in temperature, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules has been confirmed on Mercury’s surface, specifically in the cratered northern polar region. Since the floors of these deep craters are never exposed to direct sunlight, temperatures there remain below the planetary average.

View of Mercury’s north pole. based on MESSENGER probe data, showing polar deposits of water ice. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory.

These icy regions are believed to contain about 1014–1015 kg of frozen water, and may be covered by a layer of regolith that inhibits sublimation. The origin of the ice on Mercury is not yet known, but the two most likely sources are from outgassing of water from the planet’s interior or deposition by the impacts of comets. There are thought to be craters at the south pole as well, where temperatures are similarly cold enough to sustain water in ice form.

Mercury is a planet of extremes. It has an extremely eccentric orbit, an extremely thin-atmosphere, and experiences extremely hot and cold surface temperatures. Little wonder then why there is no life on the planet (at least, that we know about!) But perhaps someday, human beings may live there, sheltered in the cratered regions and using the water ice to create a habitat.

We have written many interesting articles about the average surface temperatures of the planets. Here’s What is the Average Surface Temperature of the Planets in our Solar System?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Venus?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Earth?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Mars?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Jupiter?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Saturn?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Uranus?, What is the Average Surface Temperature of Neptune?, and What is the Average Surface Temperature of Pluto?

If you’d like more information on Mercury, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide, and here’s a link to NASA’s MESSENGER Misson Page.

We have also recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s just about planet Mercury. Listen to it here, Episode 49: Mercury.

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How High is Space?

The edge of space. Credit: NASA

Look up at the night sky, and what do you see? Space, glittering and gleaming in all its glory. Astronomically speaking, space is really quite close, lingering just on the other side of that thin layer we call an atmosphere. And if you think about it, Earth is little more than a tiny island in a sea of space. So it is quite literally all around us.

By definition, space is defined as being the point at which the Earth’s atmosphere ends, and the vacuum of space begins. But exactly how far away is that? How high do you need to travel before you can actually touch space? As you can probably imagine, with such a subjective definition, people tend to disagree on exactly where space begins.

Definition:

The first official definition of space came from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor to NASA), who decided on the point where atmospheric pressure was less than one pound per square foot. This was the altitude that airplane control surfaces could no longer be used, and corresponded to roughly 81 kilometers (50 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

The Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager “broke” the sound barrier in 1947. Credit: NASA
The Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager “broke” the sound barrier in 1947. Credit: NASA

Any NASA test pilot or astronaut who crosses this altitude is awarded their astronaut wings. Shortly after that definition was passed, the aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán calculated that above an altitude of 100 km, the atmosphere would be so thin that an aircraft would need to be traveling at orbital velocity to derive any lift.

This altitude was later adopted as the Karman Line by the World Air Sports Federation (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, FAI). And in 2012, when Felix Baumgartner broke the record for the highest freefall, he jumped from an altitude of 39 kilometers (24.23 mi), less than halfway to space (according to NASA’s definition).

By the same token, space is often defined as beginning at the lowest altitude at which satellites can maintain orbits for a reasonable time – which is approximately 160 kilometers (100 miles) above the surface. These varying definitions are complicated when one takes the definition of the word “atmosphere” into account.

Earth’s Atmosphere:

When we talk about Earth’s atmosphere, we tend to think of the region where air pressure is still high enough to cause air resistance, or where the air is simply thick enough to breath. But in truth, Earth’s atmosphere is made up of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere – the latter of which extend pretty far out into space.

Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 320 km (200 mi), far above all three layers.) Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Endeavor silhouetted against Earth’s atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere. Credit: NASA
The Thermosphere, the second highest layer of the atmosphere, extends from an altitude of about 80 km (50 mi) up to the thermopause, which is at an altitude of 500–1000 km (310–620 mi). The lower part of the thermosphere, – from 80 to 550 kilometers (50 to 342 mi) – contains the ionosphere, which is so named because it is here in the atmosphere that particles are ionized by solar radiation.

Hence, this is where the phenomena known as Aurora Borealis and Aurara Australis are known to take place. The International Space Station also orbits in this layer, between 320 and 380 km (200 and 240 mi), and needs to be constantly boosted because friction with the atmosphere still occurs.

The outermost layer, known as the exosphere, extends out to an altitude of 10,000 km (6214 mi) above the planet. This layer is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules (nitrogen, oxygen, CO²). The atoms and molecules are so far apart that the exosphere no longer behaves like a gas and the particles constantly escape into space.

It is here that Earth’s atmosphere truly merges with the emptiness of outer space, where there is no atmosphere. Hence why the majority of Earth’s satellites orbit within this region. Sometimes, the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis occur in the lower part of the exosphere, where they overlap into the thermosphere. But beyond that, there is no meteorological phenomena in this region.

Interplanetary vs. Interstellar:

Another important distinction when discussing space is the difference between that which lies between planets (interplanetary space) and that which lies between star systems (interstellar space) in our galaxy. But of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to space.

If one were to cast the net wider, there is also the space which lies between galaxies in the Universe (intergalactic space). In all cases, the definition involves regions where the concentration of matter is significantly lower than in other places – i.e. a region occupied centrally by a planet, star or galaxy.

In addition, in all three definitions, the measurements involved are beyond anything that we humans are accustomed to dealing with on a regular basis. Some scientists believe that space extends infinitely in all directions, while others believe that space is finite, but is unbounded and continuous (i.e. has no beginning and end).

In other words, there’s a reason they call it space – there’s just so much of it!

Exploration:

The exploration of space (that is to say, that which lies immediately beyond Earth’s atmosphere) began in earnest with what is known as the “Space Age“, This newfound age of exploration began with the United States and Soviet Union setting their sights on placing satellites and crewed modules into orbit.

The first major event of the Space Age took place on October 4th, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union – the first artificial satellite to be launched into orbit. In response, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29th, 1958, officially establishing NASA.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A.

Immediately, NASA and the Soviet space program began taking the necessary steps towards creating manned spacecraft. By 1959, this competition resulted in the creation of the Soviet Vostok program and NASA’s Project Mercury. In the case of Vostok, this consisted of developing a space capsule that could be launched aboard an expendable carrier rocket.

Along with numerous unmanned tests, and a few using dogs, six Soviet pilots were selected by 1960 to be the first men to go into space. On April 12th, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and thus became the fist man to go into space (beating American Alan Shepard by just a few weeks).

On June 16th, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was sent into orbit aboard the Vostok 6 craft (which was the final Vostok mission), and thus became the first woman to go into space. Meanwhile, NASA took over Project Mercury from the US Air Force and began developing their own crewed mission concept.

Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti
Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti

Designed to send a man into space using existing rockets, the program quickly adopted the concept of launching ballistic capsules into orbit. The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven“, were selected from from the Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilot programs.

On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 mission. Then, on February 20th, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle as part of Friendship 7. Glenn completed three orbits of planet Earth, and three more orbital flights were made, culminating in L. Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight aboard Faith 7, which flew on May 15th and 16th, 1963.

In the ensuing decades, both NASA and Soviets began to develop more complex, long-range crewed spacecraft. Once the “Race to the Moon” ended with the successful landing of Apollo 11 (followed by several more Apollo missions), the focus began to shift to establishing a permanent presence in space.

For the Russians, this led to the continued development of space station technology as part of the Salyut program. Between 1972 and 1991, they attempted to orbit seven separate stations. However, technical failures and a failure in one rocket’s second stage boosters caused the first three attempts after Salyut 1 to fail or result in the station’s orbits decaying after a short period.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

However, by 1974, the Russians managed to successfully deploy Salyut 4, followed by three more stations that would remain in orbit for periods of between one and nine years. While all of the Salyuts were presented to the public as non-military scientific laboratories, some of them were actually covers for the military Almaz reconnaissance stations.

NASA also pursued the development of space station technology, which culminated in May of 1973 with the launch of Skylab, which would remain America’s first and only independently-built space station. During deployment, Skylab suffered severe damage, losing its thermal protection and one of its solar panels.

This required the first crew to rendezvous with the station and conduct repairs. Two more crews followed, and the station was occupied for a total of 171 days during its history of service. This ended in 1979 with the downing of the station over the Indian Ocean and parts of southern Australia.

By 1986, the Soviets once again took the lead in the creation of space stations with the deployment of Mir. Authorized in February 1976 by a government decree, the station was originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations. In time, it evolved into a station consisting of multiple modules and several ports for crewed Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo spaceships.

The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA's STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA
The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA’s STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA

The core module was launched into orbit on February 19th, 1986; and between 1987 and 1996, all of the other modules would be deployed and attached. During its 15-years of service, Mir was visited by a total of 28 long-duration crews. Through a series of collaborative programs with other nations, the station would also be visited by crews from other Eastern Bloc nations, the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA.

After a series of technical and structural problems caught up with the station, the Russian government announced in 2000 that it would decommission the space station. This began on Jan. 24th, 2001, when a Russian Progress cargo ship docked with the station and pushed it out of orbit. The station then entered the atmosphere and crashed into the South Pacific.

By 1993, NASA began collaborating with the Russians, the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to create the International Space Station (ISS). Combining NASA’s Space Station Freedom project with the Soviet/Russian Mir-2 station, the European Columbus station, and the Japanese Kibo laboratory module, the project also built on the Russian-American Shuttle-Mir missions (1995-1998).

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, crew members have been delivered exclusively by Soyuz spacecraft in recent years. Since 2014, cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos has been suspended for most non-ISS activities due to tensions caused by the situation in the Ukraine.

However, in the past few years, indigenous launch capability has been restored to the US thanks to companies like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin stepping in to fill the void with their private fleet of rockets.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for the past 15 years, having exceeded the previous record held by Mir; and has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different nations. The ISS program is expected to continue until at least 2020, but may be extended until 2028 or possibly longer, depending on the budget environment.

As you can clearly see, where our atmosphere ends and space begins is the subject of some debate. But thanks to decades of space exploration and launches, we have managed to come up with a working definition. But whatever the exact definition is, if you can get above 100 kilometers, you have definitely earned your astronaut wings!

We have written many interesting articles about space here at Universe Today. Here is Why is Space Black?, How Cold is Space?, Space Debris Illustrated: The Problem in Pictures, What is Interplanetary Space?, What is Interstellar Space?, and What is Intergalactic Space?

For more information, check out NASA Reveals Mysteries of Interstellar Space and this list of Deep Space Missions.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on the subject, like the Space Stations Series, Episode 82: Space Junk, Episode 281: Explosions in Space, Episode 303: Equilibrium in Space, and Episode 311: Sound in Space.

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What Is The Atmosphere Like On Other Planets?

Here on Earth, we tend to take our atmosphere for granted, and not without reason. Our atmosphere has a lovely mix of nitrogen and oxygen (78% and 21% respectively) with trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gaseous molecules. What’s more, we enjoy an atmospheric pressure of 101.325 kPa, which extends to an altitude of about 8.5 km.

In short, our atmosphere is plentiful and life-sustaining. But what about the other planets of the Solar System? How do they stack up in terms of atmospheric composition and pressure? We know for a fact that they are not breathable by humans and cannot support life. But just what is the difference between these balls of rock and gas and our own?

For starters, it should be noted that every planet in the Solar System has an atmosphere of one kind or another. And these range from incredibly thin and tenuous (such as Mercury’s “exosphere”) to the incredibly dense and powerful – which is the case for all of the gas giants. And depending on the composition of the planet, whether it is a terrestrial or a gas/ice giant, the gases that make up its atmosphere range from either the hydrogen and helium to more complex elements like oxygen, carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane.

Mercury’s Atmosphere:

Mercury is too hot and too small to retain an atmosphere. However, it does have a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.

Mercury's Horizon
A High-resolution Look over Mercury’s Northern Horizon. Credit: NASA/MESSENGER

Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences considerable variations in temperature. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), while the side in shadow dips down to 100 K (-173° C).

Venus’ Atmosphere:

Surface observations of Venus have been difficult in the past, due to its extremely dense atmosphere, which is composed primarily of carbon dioxide with a small amount of nitrogen. At 92 bar (9.2 MPa), the atmospheric mass is 93 times that of Earth’s atmosphere and the pressure at the planet’s surface is about 92 times that at Earth’s surface.

Venus is also the hottest planet in our Solar System, with a mean surface temperature of 735 K (462 °C/863.6 °F). This is due to the CO²-rich atmosphere which, along with thick clouds of sulfur dioxide, generates the strongest greenhouse effect in the Solar System. Above the dense CO² layer, thick clouds consisting mainly of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid droplets scatter about 90% of the sunlight back into space.

Another common phenomena is Venus’ strong winds, which reach speeds of up to 85 m/s (300 km/h; 186.4 mph) at the cloud tops and circle the planet every four to five Earth days. At this speed, these winds move up to 60 times the speed of the planet’s rotation, whereas Earth’s fastest winds are only 10-20% of the planet’s rotational speed.

Venus flybys have also indicated that its dense clouds are capable of producing lightning, much like the clouds on Earth. Their intermittent appearance indicates a pattern associated with weather activity, and the lightning rate is at least half of that on Earth.

Earth’s Atmosphere:

Earth’s atmosphere, which is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide and other trace gases, also consists of five layers. These consists of the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. As a rule, air pressure and density decrease the higher one goes into the atmosphere and the farther one is from the surface.

Closest to the Earth is the Troposphere, which extends from the 0 to between 12 km and 17 km (0 to 7 and 10.56 mi) above the surface. This layer contains roughly 80% of the mass of Earth’s atmosphere, and nearly all atmospheric water vapor or moisture is found in here as well. As a result, it is the layer where most of Earth’s weather takes place.

The Stratosphere extends from the Troposphere to an altitude of 50 km (31 mi). This layer extends from the top of the troposphere to the stratopause, which is at an altitude of about 50 to 55 km (31 to 34 mi). This layer of the atmosphere is home to the ozone layer, which is the part of Earth’s atmosphere that contains relatively high concentrations of ozone gas.

Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 320 km (200 mi), far above all three layers.) Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere. Credit: NASA
Next is the Mesosphere, which extends from a distance of 50 to 80 km (31 to 50 mi) above sea level. It is the coldest place on Earth and has an average temperature of around -85 °C (-120 °F; 190 K). The Thermosphere, the second highest layer of the atmosphere, extends from an altitude of about 80 km (50 mi) up to the thermopause, which is at an altitude of 500–1000 km (310–620 mi).

The lower part of the thermosphere, from 80 to 550 kilometers (50 to 342 mi), contains the ionosphere – which is so named because it is here in the atmosphere that particles are ionized by solar radiation.  This layer is completely cloudless and free of water vapor. It is also at this altitude that the phenomena known as Aurora Borealis and Aurara Australis are known to take place.

The Exosphere, which is outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, extends from the exobase – located at the top of the thermosphere at an altitude of about 700 km above sea level – to about 10,000 km (6,200 mi). The exosphere merges with the emptiness of outer space, and is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide

The exosphere is located too far above Earth for any meteorological phenomena to be possible. However, the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis sometimes occur in the lower part of the exosphere, where they overlap into the thermosphere.

This photo of the aurora was taken by astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on July 25, 2010. Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center
Photo of the aurora taken by astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on July 25, 2010. Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

The average surface temperature on Earth is approximately 14°C; but as already noted, this varies. For instance, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F), which was taken in the Lut Desert of Iran. Meanwhile, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was measured at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau, reaching an historic low of -89.2°C (-129°F).

Mars’ Atmosphere:

Planet Mars has a very thin atmosphere which is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen along with traces of oxygen and water. The atmosphere is quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. Mars’ atmospheric pressure ranges from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa, which is equivalent to about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Because of its thin atmosphere, and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder than what we experience here on Earth. The planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), with a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.

The planet also experiences dust storms, which can turn into what resembles small tornadoes. Larger dust storms occur when the dust is blown into the atmosphere and heats up from the Sun. The warmer dust filled air rises and the winds get stronger, creating storms that can measure up to thousands of kilometers in width and last for months at a time. When they get this large, they can actually block most of the surface from view.

Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA
Mars, as it appears today, with a very thin and tenuous atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Trace amounts of methane have also been detected in the Martian atmosphere, with an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb). It occurs in extended plumes, and the profiles imply that the methane was released from specific regions – the first of which is located between Isidis and Utopia Planitia (30°N 260°W) and the second in Arabia Terra (0°N 310°W).

Ammonia was also tentatively detected on Mars by the Mars Express satellite, but with a relatively short lifetime. It is not clear what produced it, but volcanic activity has been suggested as a possible source.

Jupiter’s Atmosphere:

Much like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. The intense radiation, Jupiter’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere create a light show that is truly spectacular.

Jupiter also experiences violent weather patterns. Wind speeds of 100 m/s (360 km/h) are common in zonal jets, and can reach as high as 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s. The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear.

Jupiter is perpetually covered with clouds composed of ammonia crystals and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide. These clouds are located in the tropopause and are arranged into bands of different latitudes, known as “tropical regions”. The cloud layer is only about 50 km (31 mi) deep, and consists of at least two decks of clouds: a thick lower deck and a thin clearer region.

There may also be a thin layer of water clouds underlying the ammonia layer, as evidenced by flashes of lightning detected in the atmosphere of Jupiter, which would be caused by the water’s polarity creating the charge separation needed for lightning. Observations of these electrical discharges indicate that they can be up to a thousand times as powerful as those observed here on the Earth.

Saturn’s Atmosphere:

The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.

Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.

Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.

Water ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.

On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.

The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.

The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.

The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years. In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter.

Uranus’ Atmosphere:

As with Earth, the atmosphere of Uranus is broken into layers, depending upon temperature and pressure. Like the other gas giants, the planet doesn’t have a firm surface, and scientists define the surface as the region where the atmospheric pressure exceeds one bar (the pressure found on Earth at sea level). Anything accessible to remote-sensing capability – which extends down to roughly 300 km below the 1 bar level – is also considered to be the atmosphere.

Diagram of the interior of Uranus. Credit: Public Domain
Diagram of the interior of Uranus. Credit: Public Domain

Using these references points, Uranus’  atmosphere can be divided into three layers. The first is the troposphere, between altitudes of -300 km below the surface and 50 km above it, where pressures range from 100 to 0.1 bar (10 MPa to 10 kPa). The second layer is the stratosphere, which reaches between 50 and 4000 km and experiences pressures between 0.1 and 10-10 bar (10 kPa to 10 µPa).

The troposphere is the densest layer in Uranus’ atmosphere. Here, the temperature ranges from 320 K (46.85 °C/116 °F) at the base (-300 km) to 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at 50 km, with the upper region being the coldest in the solar system. The tropopause region is responsible for the vast majority of Uranus’s thermal infrared emissions, thus determining its effective temperature of 59.1 ± 0.3 K.

Within the troposphere are layers of clouds – water clouds at the lowest pressures, with ammonium hydrosulfide clouds above them. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide clouds come next. Finally, thin methane clouds lay on the top.

In the stratosphere, temperatures range from 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at the upper level to between 800 and 850 K (527 – 577 °C/980 – 1070 °F) at the base of the thermosphere, thanks largely to heating caused by solar radiation. The stratosphere contains ethane smog, which may contribute to the planet’s dull appearance. Acetylene and methane are also present, and these hazes help warm the stratosphere.

Uranus. Image credit: Hubble
Uranus, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/Hubble

The outermost layer, the thermosphere and corona, extend from 4,000 km to as high as 50,000 km from the surface. This region has a uniform temperature of 800-850 (577 °C/1,070 °F), although scientists are unsure as to the reason. Because the distance to Uranus from the Sun is so great, the amount of sunlight absorbed cannot be the primary cause.

Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus’s weather follows a similar pattern where systems are broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere. As a result, winds on Uranus can reach up to 900 km/h (560 mph), creating massive storms like the one spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this “Dark Spot” was a giant cloud vortex that measured 1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

Neptune’s Atmosphere:

At high altitudes, Neptune’s atmosphere is 80% hydrogen and 19% helium, with a trace amount of methane. As with Uranus, this absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Because Neptune’s atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune’s more intense coloring.

Neptune’s atmosphere is subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperature decreases with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperature increases with altitude). The boundary between the two, the tropopause, lies at a pressure of 0.1 bars (10 kPa). The stratosphere then gives way to the thermosphere at a pressure lower than 10-5 to 10-4 microbars (1 to 10 Pa), which gradually transitions to the exosphere.

Neptune’s spectra suggest that its lower stratosphere is hazy due to condensation of products caused by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane (i.e. photolysis), which produces compounds such as ethane and ethyne. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.

In this image, the colors and contrasts were modified to emphasize the planet’s atmospheric features. The winds in Neptune’s atmosphere can reach the speed of sound or more. Neptune’s Great Dark Spot stands out as the most prominent feature on the left. Several features, including the fainter Dark Spot 2 and the South Polar Feature, are locked to the planet’s rotation, which allowed Karkoschka to precisely determine how long a day lasts on Neptune. (Image: Erich Karkoschka)
A modified color/contrast image emphasizing Neptune’s atmospheric features, including wind speed. Credit Erich Karkoschka)

For reasons that remain obscure, the planet’s thermosphere experiences unusually high temperatures of about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). The planet is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated by ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved – which could be the atmosphere’s interaction with ion’s in the planet’s magnetic field, or gravity waves from the planet’s interior that dissipate in the atmosphere.

Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. The wide equatorial zone rotates with a period of about 18 hours, which is slower than the 16.1-hour rotation of the planet’s magnetic field. By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours.

This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms. The three most impressive were all spotted in 1989 by the Voyager 2 space probe, and then named based on their appearances.

The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter life span than Jupiter’s.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The Scooter is another storm, a white cloud group located farther south than the Great Dark Spot – a nickname that first arose during the months leading up to the Voyager 2 encounter in 1989. The Small Dark Spot, a southern cyclonic storm, was the second-most-intense storm observed during the 1989 encounter. It was initially completely dark; but as Voyager 2 approached the planet, a bright core developed and could be seen in most of the highest-resolution images.

In sum, the planet’s of our Solar System all have atmospheres of sorts. And compared to Earth’s relatively balmy and thick atmosphere, they run the gamut between very very thin to very very dense. They also range in temperatures from the extremely hot (like on Venus) to the extreme freezing cold.

And when it comes to weather systems, things can equally extreme, with planet’s boasting either weather at all, or intense cyclonic and dust storms that put storms here n Earth to shame. And whereas some are entirely hostile to life as we know it, others we might be able to work with.

We have many interesting articles about planetary atmosphere’s here at Universe Today. For instance, he’s What is the Atmosphere?, and articles about the atmosphere of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune,

For more information on atmospheres, check out NASA’s pages on Earth’s Atmospheric Layers, The Carbon Cycle, and how Earth’s atmosphere differs from space.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the source of the atmosphere.

Saturn’s “Wispy” Moon Has An Oxygen Atmosphere

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There’s oxygen around Dione, a research team led by scientists at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory announced on Friday. The presence of molecular oxygen around Dione creates an intriguing possibility for organic compounds — the building blocks of life — to exist on other outer planet moons.

Dione's signature "wispy lines" are actually the bright walls of long cliff faces. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

One of Saturn’s 62 known moons, Dione (pronounced DEE-oh-nee) is 698 miles (1,123 km) in diameter. It orbits Saturn at about the same distance that our Moon orbits Earth. Heavily cratered and crisscrossed by long, bright scarps, Dione is made mostly of water ice and  rock. It makes a complete orbit of Saturn every 2.7 days.

Data acquired during a flyby of the moon by the Cassini spacecraft in 2010 have been found by the Los Alamos researchers to confirm the presence of molecular oxygen high in Dione’s extremely thin atmosphere — so thin, in fact, that scientists prefer the term exosphere.

While you couldn’t take a deep breath on Dione, the presence of O2 indicates a dynamic process in action.

“The concentration of oxygen in Dione’s atmosphere is roughly similar to what you would find in Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of about 300 miles,” said Robert Tokar, researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.  “It’s not enough to sustain life, but—together with similar observations of other moons around Saturn and Jupiter—these are definitive examples of a process by which a lot of oxygen can be produced in icy celestial bodies that are bombarded by charged particles or photons from the Sun or whatever light source happens to be nearby.”

On Dione the energy source is Saturn’s powerful magnetic field. As the moon orbits the giant planet, charged ions in Saturn’s magnetosphere slam into the surface of Dione, stripping oxygen from the ice on its surface and crust. This molecular oxygen (O2) flows into Dione’s exosphere, where it is then steadily blown into space by — once again — Saturn’s magnetic field.

Cassini’s instruments detected the oxygen in Dione’s wake during an April 2010 flyby.

Molecular oxygen, if present on other moons as well (say, Europa or Enceladus) could potentially bond with carbon in subsurface water to form the building blocks of life. Since there’s lots of water ice on moons in the outer solar system, as well as some very powerful magnetic fields emanating from planets like Jupiter and Saturn, there’s no reason to think there isn’t more oxygen to be found… in our solar system or elsewhere.

Read the news release from the Los Alamos National Laboratory here.

 

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Research citation: Tokar, R. L., R. E. Johnson, M. F. Thomsen, E. C. Sittler, A. J. Coates, R. J. Wilson, F. J. Crary, D. T. Young, and G. H. Jones (2012), Detection of exospheric O2+ at Saturn’s moon Dione, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L03105, doi:10.1029/2011GL050452.

 

Exosphere

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The Earth’s atmosphere is broken up into several distinct layers. We live down in the troposphere, where the atmosphere is thickest. Above that is the stratosphere, then there’s the mesosphere, thermosphere and finally the exosphere. The top of the exosphere marks the line between the Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

The exosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. It starts at an altitude of about 500 km and goes out to about 10,000 km. Within this region particles of atmosphere can travel for hundreds of kilometers in a ballistic trajectory before bumping into any other particles of the atmosphere. Particles escape out of the exosphere into deep space.

The lower boundary of the exosphere, where it interacts with the thermosphere is called the thermopause. It starts at an altitude of about 250-500 km, but its height depends on the amount of solar activity. Below the thermopause, particles of the atmosphere have atomic collisions, like what you might find in a balloon. But above the thermopause, this switches over to purely ballistic collisions.

The theoretical top boundary of the exosphere is 190,000 km (half way to the Moon). This is the point at which the solar radiation coming from the Sun overcomes the Earth’s gravitational pull on the atmospheric particles. This has been detected to about 100,000 km from the surface of the Earth. Most scientists consider 10,000 km to be the official boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

We have written several articles about the Earth’s atmosphere for Universe Today. Here’s an article about an evaporating extrasolar planet, and this article explains how far away space is.

You can learn more about the layers of the atmosphere, including the exosphere from this page at NASA.

We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast talking about the Earth’s (and it’s atmosphere). Check it out here, Episode 51: Earth.

Atmosphere Layers

Atmosphere layers. Image credit: NASA

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Seen from space, the Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly thin, like a slight haze around the planet. But the atmosphere has several different layers that scientists have identified; from the thick atmosphere that we breathe to the tenuous exosphere that extends out thousands of kilometers from the Earth. Let’s take a look at the different atmosphere layers.

Scientists have identified 5 distinct layers of the atmosphere, starting with the thickest near the surface, and then thinning out until it eventually merges with space.

The troposphere is the first layer above the surface of the Earth, and it contains 75% of the Earth’s atmosphere, and 99% of its water. Breathe in, that’s the troposphere. The average depth of the troposphere is about 17 km high. It gets deeper in the tropical regions, up to 20 km, and then shallower near the Earth’s poles – down to 7 km thick. Temperature and pressure are at the their highest at sea level, and then decrease with altitude. The troposphere is also where we experience weather.

The next atmosphere layer is the stratosphere, extending above the troposphere to an altitude of 51 km. Unlike the troposphere, temperature actually increases with height. Commercial airlines will typically fly in the stratosphere because it’s very stable; above weather, and allows them to optimize burning jet fuel. You might be surprised to know that bacterial life survives in the stratosphere.

Above that is the mesosphere, which starts at about 50-85 km above the Earth’s surface and extends up to an altitude of 80-90 km. Temperatures decrease the higher you go in the mesosphere, reaching a low of -100 °C, depending on the latitude and season.

Next comes the thermosphere. This region starts around 90 km above the Earth and goes up to about 320 and 380 km. The International Space Station orbits within the thermosphere. This is the region of the atmosphere where ultraviolet radiation causes ionization, and we can see auroras. Temperatures in the thermosphere can actually reach 2,500 °C; however, it wouldn’t feel warm because the atmosphere is so thin.

The 5th and final layer of the Earth’s atmosphere is the exosphere. This starts above the thermosphere and extends out for hundreds and even thousands of kilometers. Air molecules in this region can travel for hundreds of kilometers without bouncing into another particle.

We have written many articles about the Earth’s atmosphere for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, and here’s information about the Earth’s early atmosphere.

Here’s a great article from NASA that explains the different layers of the atmosphere, and here’s more information from NOAA.

We have done a whole episode of Astronomy Cast just about Earth. Listen to it here, Episode 51 – Earth.