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With Explore the Planets, investigate the planets, their moons, and understand the processes that shape them. By G. Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.

Exploratour - Evolution of the Solar System

This is an image of Mt. St. Helens, in Washington, USA.
Click on image for full size
Image from: USGS, courtesy of Volcano World

The air we breathe today is made mostly of N2 and O2, but also H, He, H2O, CO2, SO2, methane, ammonia, and many other gases including smog from human activities. Scientists think that the atmosphere we breathe today is nothing like the atmosphere the Earth started with, which might have been made of solely of H and He. Thus scientists call the atmosphere of today a secondary atmosphere because it came along second and replaced the earlier, first atmosphere.

Scientists think that the secondary atmosphere came from the many volcanic eruptions which took place in Earth's early history, and which continue today. All volcanoes are different but in general they release gases such as H2O, CO2, SO2, H2S, HCl, N2, NO2. These gases come from the melting of the Earth's crust at subterranian depths. In fact, volcanic activity can be thought of as recycling and replenishing the molecules of the atmosphere. These molecules are not the Nitrogen and Oxygen which are the majority of gases in the air today, however.

The formation of the early ocean played a large part in shaping what gases remained in the atmosphere and what gases were carried into the water, to become dissolved into the ocean and surface reservoirs. Scientists think that the Earth's secondary atmosphere may have come to be dominated by N2 because it alone of all the gases comprising the secondary atmosphere does not readily dissolve in water. Oxygen came into the atmosphere as a waste product from the photosynthetic activity of early life forms after that oxygen had first combined with residual surface iron to produce iron ore (coal).

We will talk more about the changes in Earth's atmosphere later.

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Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

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ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

Even though the sleeping man is no longer on the bed, you can still see where he was lying down. The heat from his body warmed up the bed sheets which are now radiating infrared light toward your eyes....more

ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

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ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

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ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

Imagine you found a pair of special glasses that not only gave you telescopic vision but gave you the ability to see all forms of radiant energy. The universe in visible light contains all the familiar...more

ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

This is a volcano on the island of Miyake in Japan. It has erupted, sending hot lava and ash into the air, a total of ten times. The time after one eruption until the next occurred was about twenty years...more

ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

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ExploraTour - Looking at the World in a Different Light

This is a plant in Gary, Indiana where power is made. We use power to run things like television sets, radios, lights, and microwave ovens. The picture looks very strange because it was taken in infrared....more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF