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Planetary Atmospheres: Chemistry and Composition  

Channon Visscher

The observed composition of a planetary atmosphere is the product of planetary formation and evolution, including the chemical and physical processes shaping atmospheric abundances into the present day. In the solar system, the gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune possess massive molecular envelopes consisting mostly of H2 and He along with various minor amounts of heavy elements such as C, N, and O (present as CH4, NH3, and H2O, respectively) and numerous additional minor species. The terrestrial planets Venus, Earth, and Mars each possess a relatively thin atmospheric envelope surrounding a rocky surface. The atmospheres of Mars and Venus are characterized by abundant CO2 with a small amount of N2, whereas the atmosphere of the Earth is dominated by N2 and O2. Such differences provide clues to the divergent pathways of atmospheric evolution. Numerous closely coupled physical and chemical processes give rise to the abundances observed in the planetary atmospheres of the solar system. These processes include the maintenance of thermochemical equilibrium, reaction kinetics, atmospheric transport, photochemistry, condensation (including cloud formation) and vaporization, deposition and sublimation, diurnal and seasonal effects, greenhouse effects, surface–atmosphere reactions, volcanic activity, and (in the case of Earth) biogenic and anthropogenic sources. The present understanding of the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres is the result of over a century of observations, including ground-based, space-based, and in situ measurements of the major, minor, trace, and isotopic species found on each planet. These observations have been accompanied by experimental studies of planetary materials and the development of theoretical models to identify the key processes shaping atmospheric abundances observed today.