The Exosphere

NASA's graphic depicting the layers of Earth's Atmosphere

The Exosphere is the uppermost region of the Earth's atmosphere and has no clear upper boundary since it gradually fades into outer space.


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

The exosphere is directly above the thermosphere; the boundary between these two layers 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 from about 500 to 1000 km (310-620 miles) above the Earth's surface, depending on the amount of incoming X-ray and ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.

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.

Because 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.

The air in the exosphere is so thin that collisions of molecules and atoms of atmospheric gases 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. Consider that the average altitude of the International Space Station 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 will eventually fall out of orbit and burn up as they re-enter 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.