Planet Earth

Color image  showing the full disk of Earth.

Color image showing the full disk of Earth.

Earth, our home planet, is the only planet in our solar system known to harbor life: life that is incredibly diverse. All the things we need to survive exist under a thin layer of atmosphere that separates us from the cold, airless void of space.

Earth is made up of complex, interactive systems that create a constantly changing world that we are striving to understand. From the vantage point of space we are able to observe our planet globally, using sensitive instruments to understand the delicate balance among its oceans, air, land and life. Satellite observations help study and predict weather, drought, pollution, climate change and many other phenomena that affect the environment, economy and society.

Illustration showing Earth's tiny size compared to the Sun.

This illustration shows the approximate size of Earth compared to the Sun.

Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the fifth largest in our solar system. Earth’s diameter is just a few hundred kilometers larger than that of Venus.

The four seasons are a result of Earth’s axis of rotation being tilted 23.45 degrees with respect to the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. During part of the year, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun and the southern hemisphere is tilted away, producing summer in the north and winter in the south. Six months later, the situation is reversed. During March and September, when spring and fall begin in the northern hemisphere, both hemispheres receive roughly equal amounts of solar illumination.

Earth’s global ocean, which covers nearly 70 percent of the planet’s surface, has an average depth of about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). Fresh water exists in the liquid phase only within a narrow temperature span: 0 to 100°C (32 to 212°F). This span is especially narrow when contrasted with the full range of temperatures found within the solar system. The presence and distribution of water vapor in the atmosphere is responsible for much of Earth’s weather.

Near the surface, an atmosphere that consists of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and 1 percent other ingredients envelops us. The atmosphere affects Earth’s long-term climate and short-term local weather, shields us from much of the harmful radiation coming from the Sun and protects us from meteors as well: most of which burn up before they can strike the surface as meteorites. Earth-orbiting satellites have revealed that the upper atmosphere actually swells by day and contracts by night due to solar heating during the day and cooling at night.

Color image showing aurorae over Earth and the tail of the Space  Shuttle.

Red and green colors predominate in this view of the Aurora Australis photographed from the Space Shuttle in May 1991.

Our planet’s rapid rotation and molten nickel-iron core give rise to a magnetic field, which the solar wind distorts into a teardrop shape in space. (The solar wind is a stream of charged particles continuously ejected from the Sun.) Earth’s magnetic field does not fade off into space, but has definite boundaries. When charged particles from the solar wind become trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, they collide with air molecules above our planet’s magnetic poles. These air molecules then begin to glow, and are known as the aurorae – the northern and southern lights.

Earth’s lithosphere, which includes the crust (both continental and oceanic) and the upper mantle, is divided into huge plates that are constantly moving. For example, the North American plate moves west over the Pacific Ocean basin, roughly at a rate equal to the growth of our fingernails. Earthquakes result when plates grind past one another, ride up over one another, collide to make mountains, or split and separate. The theory of motion of the large plates of the lithosphere is known as plate tectonics. Developed within the last 40 years, this explanation has unified the results of centuries of study of our planet.

How Earth Got its Name
All of the planets, except for Earth, were named after Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. The name Earth is an English/German name which simply means the ground. It comes from the Old English words eor(th)e and ertha. In German it is erde. The name Earth is at least 1,000 years old.

Significant Dates

  • 1960: NASA launches the Television Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS), the first weather satellite.
  • 1972: The Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1 (renamed Landsat 1) is launched, the first in a series of Earth-imaging satellites that continues today.
  • 1987: NASA’s Airborne Antarctic Ozone Experiment helps determine the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.

    Color  image showing cracking ice.

    Scientists watched this Antarctic ice shelf breakup in 2008 and 2009.

  • 1992: TOPEX/Poseidon, a U.S.-France mission, begins measuring sea-surface height. Jason 1 continues these measurements in 2001.
  • 1997: TOPEX/Poseidon captures the evolution of El Nino (cold ocean water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean) and La Nina (warm ocean water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean).
  • 1997: The U.S.-Japan Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission is launched to provide 3-D maps of storm structure.
  • 1999: Quick Scatterometer (QuikScat) launches in June to measure ocean surface wind velocity; in December the Active Cavity Irradiance Monitor Satellite launches to monitor the total amount of the Sun’s energy reaching Earth.
  • 1999-2006: A series of satellites is launched to provide global observations of the Earth system – simultaneously studying land, oceans, atmosphere, water cycles, gravity, clouds and aerosols.
  • 2006: The Antarctic ozone hole was the largest yet observed.
  • 2007: Arctic sea ice reaches the all-time minimum since satellite records began.
  • 2008: The third U.S.-France mission to measure sea-level height, Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason 2, is launched, doubling global data coverage.
  • 2009: NASA and Japan release the most accurate topographic map of Earth.

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