Earth – A Tale of Spheres

Seen from space, Earth can be divided into a series of layers or zones that are referred to as spheres. The outermost of these layers is the magnetosphere, which is the region around Earth that is affected by its magnetic field. This field originates from a dynamo deep inside the planet and is mostly a dipole, characterized by a North Pole and a South Pole. Importantly, Earth’s magnetic field acts as a shield against the charged particles of the solar wind and the cosmic rays from supernova explosions. Still, some of these particles make it past the shield and are focused to the polar regions along magnetic field lines. When these particles interact with gas atoms in the upper atmosphere, they can result in spectacular phenomena such as aurorae.

The atmosphere is the envelope of gas that surrounds the Earth. It consists of ~ 78 % nitrogen (N2), ~ 21 % oxygen (O2) and a number of different traces gases, such as ozone (O3), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and water vapor (H2O). This mixture of gases is more commonly known as air. Both the air density and the air pressure gradually decrease with altitude and as a result, almost all gas molecules are found in the lowermost 50 km of the atmosphere. The air pressure is ~ 1 bar at Earth’s surface, but less than ~ 0.01 bar at an altitude of 30 km.

Approximately 30 % of Earth’s surface consists of continents and islands, while as much as 70 % is covered with water. The total mass of water on Earth, in the form of oceans, glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater and the atmosphere, is known as the hydrosphere. Notably, less than 3 % of all water on the planet is fresh water, and most of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and groundwater. The ice-covered regions of Earth’s surface are also known as the cryosphere.

The solid surface and interior of the Earth are referred to as the geosphere. Earth’s surface displays dramatic changes in topography that are related to a variety of processes, but unlike the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, it features relatively few meteorite impact craters. Both the continents and the ocean floor are characterized by steep mountains, extensive plains and deep valleys. The highest mountain above sea level is Mount Everest and the deepest part of the oceans is located in the Mariana Trench.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Earth is its ability to sustain life. Living organisms occur in many magnificent forms across a wide range of habitats and ecosystems, from barren deserts to lush rainforests. All life on Earth together constitutes the biosphere.

The boundaries between these so-called spheres are not always apparent, because the spheres interact in many ways. For example, the atmosphere plays a major role in the hydrological cycle, the exchange of water among the various reservoirs of the hydrosphere. In addition, some of the most impressive natural phenomena are related to the interplay between elements of the biosphere and the geosphere.

Book reference: Marshak, S. (2007). Earth: Portrait of a Planet: Third International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company.

Image: Earth as seen from space, also known as the Blue Marble. Credit: NASA/NOAA/Reto Stöckli.

Seven Earth-like exoplanets discovered orbiting a single nearby star

Astronomers at the University of Liège in Belgium have discovered seven Earth-like exoplanets orbiting a single, nearby star called TRAPPIST-1. The scientists have uncovered these planets with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and several ground-based telescopes, by detecting small decreases in the light intensity of the star as the planets passed in front of it. TRAPPIST-1 is located approximately 40 lightyears from the Earth in the constellation Aquarius and is so small and cool that all seven planets feature temperate conditions, suggesting that liquid water could be present at any of their surfaces. Moreover, three of these planets are located within the habitable zone, the area around a star where conditions are most favorable for life. This discovery, which has been published in Nature, represents a new record for the greatest number of habitable-zone planets found in a single star system and is therefore an important milestone in the search for extraterrestrial life.

For more on the story behind this fascinating discovery, watch the video by NASA below.

Journal reference: Gillon, M. et al. (2017). Seven temperate terrestrial planets around the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Nature, 542(7642), 456–460.

Image: Artist’s impression of the surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 star system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Meteorite reveals two billion year history of volcanism on Mars

Scientists from the University of Houston have discovered that volcanism on Mars occurred over a period of at least two billion years, much longer than previously thought. Their findings are based on geochemical analyses of a Martian meteorite found in northwest Africa and have been published in Science Advances. The meteorite, a type of igneous rock known as shergottite, was found to have an age of approximately 2.4 billion years and is similar in composition and origin to a group of ten other Martian meteorites with ages of 327 to 574 million years. These rocks were likely ejected into space towards the Earth during a single impact 1.1 million years ago, which further suggests that they were all derived from the same volcanic source. Therefore, the spatial and temporal relationships of these meteorites indicate that volcanism must have occurred for over two billion years at the same location. This amazing discovery sheds new light on the formation of the planet and suggests that Mars was to some of the longest-lived volcanoes in the Solar System.

Journal reference: Lapen, T. J., Righter, M., Andreasen, R., Irving, A. J., Satkoski, A. M., Beard, B. L., Nishiizumi, K., Jull, A. J. T. & Caffee, M. W. (2017). Two billion years of magmatism recorded from a single Mars meteorite ejection site. Science Advances, 3(2).

Image: Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars, as seen from the Viking 1 Orbiter. Credit: NASA.

The Dawn of the Solar System

The Sun and the Solar System are believed to have formed about 4.57 billion years ago, more than 9 billion years after the universe came into existence. As with any other star, the formation of the Sun started with the development of an accretion disk from a nebula. The nebula that would form the Solar System contained all of the 92 naturally occurring elements, because it had incorporated remnants of preceding generations of stars. In the swirling accretion disk, matter was therefore not only present in the form of gas, but also as ice or dust. Because these are the raw materials required to form planets, such an accretion disk is also known as a protoplanetary disk.

Over time, the ball of gas at the center of the swirling protoplanetary disk evolved into a proto-Sun, while the remaining materials developed into a series of concentric rings. Because protoplanetary disks are hotter towards their center, particles of refractory materials (dust) concentrated in the inner rings of the disk whereas particles of volatile materials (ice) concentrated in the outer rings of the disk. The materials of surrounding rings subsequently started to coalesce and form progressively larger objects. Following continuous collisions, some of these objects grew into planetesimals, solid chunks of matter that were so large that they exerted enough gravity to attract other surrounding objects. Eventually, the planetesimals that succeeded in attracting the most matter grew into protoplanets. Once these protoplanets had incorporated essentially all of the matter that was present in their orbits, they would become true planets.

The characteristics of the planets that formed depended on their distance from the proto-Sun. Small terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) formed in the inner rings of the young Solar System, which consisted mostly of dust, while large gaseous planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) formed in the outer rings, which consisted primarily of gas and ice. Because of their massive size, the outer planets attracted so much additional gas and ice that they evolved into gas giants. Towards the end of planetary formation, the proto-Sun became so hot that it ignited and transformed into the true Sun. This generated a stellar wind – or solar wind – that blew away any remaining gases from the inner region of the Solar System.

Altogether, this model for the formation and evolution of the Solar System is referred to as the nebular hypothesis. It is the most widely accepted model because it is able to explain several key characteristics of the Solar System, including why all planets orbit the Sun in the same direction and why their orbits all occur in the same plane. These observations are all consistent with the formation of stars and planets from gas, ice and dust in an accretion disk rotating around a central mass.

Book reference: Marshak, S. (2007). Earth: Portrait of a Planet: Third International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company.

Image: Artists impression of the Solar System showing the Sun, the eight planets and several other celestial objects. Credit: NASA.

Hydrated salts are evidence for flowing water on Mars

Scientists at NASA have discovered evidence for flowing water on the surface of Mars. Spectral data recorded by the imaging spectrometer of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicates the presence of hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae at four different locations on the planet. These narrow streaks of low reflectance on the surface of Mars grow in the downslope direction during warm seasons when temperatures reach 250 K – 300 K and fade away during cold seasons. The hydrated salts most likely represent a mixture of magnesium perchlorate (Mg(ClO4)2.H2O), magnesium chlorate (Mg(ClO3)2.H2O) and sodium perchlorate (NaClO4.H2O), and appear to be most abundant when the recurring slope lineae are most extensive. This suggests that these structures are formed as a result of water flowing at the surface or in the shallow subsurface of Mars. The discovery of liquid water is a major step in the search for extant life on Mars.

Journal reference: Ojha, L., Wilhelm, M. B., Murchie, S. L., McEwen, A. S., Wray, J. J., Hanley, J., … & Chojnacki, M. (2015). Spectral evidence for hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae on Mars. Nature Geoscience.

Image: Recurring slope lineae in the Garni Crater on Mars as seen from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Source: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech/University of Arizona.


Mars is the second smallest planet in the Solar System and the fourth planet from the Sun. It has a mean radius of ~ 3390 km, a mean distance to the Sun of ~ 228 million km and an orbital period of ~ 687 Earth days. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a reddish color, which is related to dust and rocks at its surface that are enriched in iron oxides. The planet is surrounded by a thin atmosphere and is characterized by impact craters, volcanoes, valleys as well as polar ice. Mars is also known for Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System, and Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the Solar System.

Information source: NASA

Image: Mars and the Valles Marineris as seen from the Viking 1 Orbiter. Source: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech.


Mercury is the smallest of the eight planets in the Solar System, with a mean radius of ~ 2440 km, a mean distance to the Sun of ~ 58 million km and an orbital period of ~ 88 Earth days. Mercury is a terrestrial planet with a surface characterized by impact craters and basaltic lava plains, similar to Earth’s Moon. Because it is the closest planet to the Sun and has almost no atmosphere, Mercury experiences the largest variations in surface temperatures of all planets in the Solar System.

Information source: NASA

Image: Mercury as seen from MESSENGER. Source: NASA/John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.


Earth is the largest terrestrial planet in the Solar System, the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to sustain life. It has a mean radius of ~ 6371 km, a mean distance to the Sun of ~ 150 million km and an orbital period of ~ 365 days. Earth is thought to have formed approximately 4.55 billion years ago and has one natural satellite, the Moon. The planet has a differentiated structure consisting of a crust, mantle and core and features plate tectonics. Importantly, Earth harbors abundant liquid water at its surface, most of which can be found in its oceans. The planet is surrounded by an atmosphere that contains ~ 78 % nitrogen (N2), ~ 21 % oxygen (O2) and several other trace gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O).

Information source: NASA

Image: Earth as seen from space, also known as the Blue Marble. Credit: NASA/NOAA/Reto Stöckli.