Airless worlds in our solar system seem peppered with craters large and small. Earth, on the other hand, has few craters, but a thick atmosphere and much surface activity. Although impacts occurred on Earth at the same rate, craters have since been erased by forces in the planet’s crust and atmosphere. What can the comparison between the obvious persistent cratering on so many other worlds, and the different appearance of Earth, tell us about the history of our planet?
As our first step in exploring the solar system in more detail, we turn to the most familiar planet, our own Earth. The first humans to see Earth as a blue sphere floating in the blackness of space were the astronauts who made the first voyage around the Moon in 1968. For many people, the historic images showing our world as a small, distant globe represent a pivotal moment in human history, when it became difficult for educated human beings to view our world without a global perspective. In this chapter, we examine the composition and structure of our planet with its envelope of ocean and atmosphere. We ask how our terrestrial environment came to be the way it is today, and how it compares with other planets.
- 6.1: The Global Perspective
- Earth is the prototype terrestrial planet. Its interior composition and structure are probed using seismic waves. Such studies reveal that Earth has a metal core and a silicate mantle. The outer layer, or crust, consists primarily of oceanic basalt and continental granite. A global magnetic field, generated in the core, produces Earth’s magnetosphere, which can trap charged atomic particles.
- 6.2: Earth's Crust
- Terrestrial rocks can be classified as igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. A fourth type, primitive rock, is not found on Earth. Our planet’s geology is dominated by plate tectonics, in which crustal plates move slowly in response to mantle convection. The surface expression of plate tectonics includes continental drift, recycling of the ocean floor, mountain building, rift zones, subduction zones, faults, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions of lava from the interior.
- 6.3: Earth's Atmosphere
- The atmosphere has a surface pressure of 1 bar and is composed primarily of \(N_2\) and \(O_2\), plus such important trace gases as \(H_2O\), \(CO_2\), and \(O_3\). Its structure consists of the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and ionosphere. Changing the composition of the atmosphere also influences the temperature. Atmospheric circulation (weather) is driven by seasonally changing deposition of sunlight.
- 6.4: Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
- Life originated on Earth at a time when the atmosphere lacked \(O_2\) and consisted mostly of \(CO_2\). Later, photosynthesis gave rise to free oxygen and ozone. Modern genomic analysis lets us see how the wide diversity of species on the planet are related to each other. \(CO_2\) and methane in the atmosphere heat the surface through the greenhouse effect; today, increasing amounts of atmospheric \(CO_2\) are leading to the global warming of our planet.
- 6.5: Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
- Earth, like the Moon and other planets, has been influenced by the impacts of cosmic debris, including such recent examples as Meteor Crater and the Tunguska explosion. Larger past impacts are implicated in some mass extinctions, including the large impact 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species.
- 6.6: General Properties of the Moon
- Most of what we know about the Moon derives from the Apollo program, including 400 kilograms of lunar samples still being intensively studied. The Moon has one-eightieth the mass of Earth and is severely depleted in both metals and volatile materials. It is made almost entirely of silicates like those in Earth’s mantle and crust. However, more recent spacecraft have found evidence of a small amount of water near the lunar poles, most likely deposited by comet and asteroid impacts.
- 6.7: The Lunar Surface
- The Moon, like Earth, was formed about 4.5 billion year ago. The Moon’s heavily cratered highlands are made of rocks more than 4 billion years old. The darker volcanic plains of the maria were erupted primarily between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years ago. Generally, the surface is dominated by impacts, including continuing small impacts that produce its fine-grained soil.
- 6.8: Impact Craters
- A century ago, Grove Gilbert suggested that the lunar craters were caused by impacts, but the cratering process was not well understood until more recently. High-speed impacts produce explosions and excavate craters 10 to 15 times the size of the impactor with raised rims, ejecta blankets, and often central peaks. Cratering rates have been roughly constant for the past 3 billion years but earlier were much greater. Crater counts can be used to derive approximate ages for geological features.
- 6.9: The Origin of the Moon
- The three standard hypotheses for the origin of the Moon were the fission hypothesis, the sister hypothesis, and the capture hypothesis. All have problems, and they have been supplanted by the giant impact hypothesis, which ascribes the origin of the Moon to the impact of a Mars-sized projectile with Earth 4.5 billion years ago. The debris from the impact made a ring around Earth which condensed and formed the Moon.
- 6.10: Mercury
- Mercury is the nearest planet to the Sun and the fastest moving. Mercury is similar to the Moon in having a heavily cratered surface and no atmosphere, but it differs in having a very large metal core. Early in its evolution, it apparently lost part of its silicate mantle, probably due to one or more giant impacts. Long scarps on its surface testify to a global compression of Mercury’s crust during the past 4 billion years.
- 6.11: The Nearest Planets - An Overview
- Venus, the nearest planet, is a great disappointment through the telescope because of its impenetrable cloud cover. Mars is more tantalizing, with dark markings and polar caps. Early in the twentieth century, it was widely believed that the “canals” of Mars indicated intelligent life there. Mars has only 11% the mass of Earth, but Venus is nearly our twin in size and mass. Mars rotates in 24 hours and has seasons like Earth; Venus has a retrograde rotation period of 243 days.
- 6.12: The Geology of Venus
- Venus has been mapped by radar, especially with the Magellan spacecraft. Its crust consists of 75% lowland lava plains, numerous volcanic features, and many large coronae, which are the expression of subsurface volcanism. The planet has been modified by widespread tectonics driven by mantle convection, forming complex patterns of ridges and cracks and building high continental regions such as Ishtar. The surface is extraordinarily inhospitable, with pressure of 90 bars and temperature of 730 K.
- 6.13: The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
- The atmosphere of Venus is 96% \(CO_2\). Thick clouds at altitudes of 30 to 60 kilometers are made of sulfuric acid, and a \(CO_2\) greenhouse effect maintains the high surface temperature. Venus presumably reached its current state from more earthlike initial conditions as a result of a runaway greenhouse effect, which included the loss of large quantities of water.
- 6.14: The Geology of Mars
- Most of what we know about Mars is derived from spacecraft: highly successful orbiters, landers, and rovers. We have also been able to study a few martian rocks that reached Earth as meteorites. Mars has heavily cratered highlands in its southern hemisphere, but younger, lower volcanic plains over much of its northern half. The Tharsis bulge, as big as North America, includes several huge volcanoes; Olympus Mons is more than 20 kilometers high and 500 kilometers in diameter.
- 6.15: Water and Life on Mars
- The martian atmosphere has a surface pressure of less than 0.01 bar and is 95% \(CO_2\). It has dust clouds, water clouds, and carbon dioxide (dry ice) clouds. Liquid water on the surface is not possible today, but there is subsurface permafrost at high latitudes. Seasonal polar caps are made of dry ice; the northern residual cap is water ice, whereas the southern permanent ice cap is made predominantly of water ice with a covering of carbon dioxide ice.
- 6.16: Divergent Planetary Evolution
- Earth, Venus, and Mars have diverged in their evolution from what may have been similar beginnings. We need to understand why if we are to protect the environment of Earth.
Thumbnail: This image, taken from the International Space Station in 2006, shows a plume of ash coming from the Cleveland Volcano in the Aleutian Islands. Although the plume was only visible for around two hours, such events are a testament to the dynamic nature of Earth’s crust. (credit: modification of work by NASA)
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).