Exosphere - overview

Exosphere - overview

Although the International Space Station orbits Earth, it actually flies below the altitude of the exosphere!
Credit: NASA

The exosphere is the uppermost region of Earth's atmosphere as it gradually fades into the vacuum of space. Air in the exosphere is extremely thin - in many ways it is almost the same as the airless void of outer space.

The layer directly below the exosphere is the thermosphere; the boundary between the two is called the thermopause. The bottom of the exosphere is sometimes also referred to as the exobase. The altitude of the lower boundary of the exosphere varies. When the Sun is active around the peak of the sunspot cycle, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation from the Sun heat and "puff up" the thermosphere - raising the altitude of the thermopause to heights around 1,000 km (620 miles) above Earth's surface. When the Sun is less active during the low point of the sunspot cycle, solar radiation is less intense and the thermopause recedes to within about 500 km (310 miles) of Earth's surface.

Not all scientists agree that the exosphere is really a part of the atmosphere. Some scientists consider the thermosphere the uppermost part of Earth's atmosphere, and think that the exosphere is really just part of space. However, other scientists do consider the exosphere part of our planet's atmosphere.

Since the exosphere gradually fades into outer space, there is no clear upper boundary of this layer. One definition of the outermost limit of the exosphere places the uppermost edge of Earth's atmosphere around 190,000 km (120,000 miles), about halfway to the Moon. At this distance, radiation pressure from sunlight exerts more force on hydrogen atoms than does the pull of Earth's gravity. A faint glow of ultraviolet radiation scattered by hydrogen atoms in the uppermost atmosphere has been detected at heights of 100,000 km (62,000 miles) by satellites. This region of UV glow is called the geocorona.

Below the exosphere, molecules and atoms of atmospheric gases constantly collide with each other. However, air in the exosphere is so thin that such collisions are very rare. Gas atoms and molecules in the exosphere move along "ballistic trajectories", reminiscent of the arcing flight of a thrown ball (or shot cannonball!) as it gradually curves back towards Earth under the pull of gravity. Most gas particles in the exosphere zoom along curved paths without ever hitting another atom or molecule, eventually arcing back down into the lower atmosphere due to the pull of gravity. However, some of the faster-moving particles don't return to Earth - they fly off into space instead! A small portion of our atmosphere "leaks" away into space each year in this way.

Although the exosphere is technically part of Earth's atmosphere, in many ways it is part of outer space. Many satellites, including the International Space Station (ISS), orbit within the exosphere or below. For example, the average altitude of the ISS is about 330 km (205 miles), placing it in the thermosphere below the exosphere! Although the atmosphere is very, very thin in the thermosphere and exosphere, there is still enough air to cause a slight amount of drag force on satellites that orbit within these layers. This drag force gradually slows the spacecraft in their orbits, so that they eventually would fall out of orbit and burn up as they re-entered the atmosphere unless something is done to boost them back upwards. The ISS loses about 2 km (1.2 miles) in altitude each month to such "orbital decay", and must periodically be given an upward boost by rocket engines to keep it in orbit.

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