The Structure of the Atmosphere

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  • 0:00 Four Layers
  • 0:35 Troposphere
  • 1:28 Stratosphere
  • 2:27 Mesosphere
  • 3:10 Thermosphere and Beyond
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

If you've ever climbed a mountain or been to the beach, you know that the atmosphere is different at different levels. This lesson explains how the structure of the atmosphere is really like a layer cake.

Four Layers

Imagine that you're preparing for a rocket launch in which you and your crew will launch from the surface of the Earth in an attempt to repair the International Space Station. While it may be hard to believe, you actually won't be leaving the Earth's atmosphere for this mission! This is because the atmosphere of Earth actually extends hundreds of miles above the surface. In this lesson, we'll prep you for your mission by making sure that you're familiar with each layer of the Earth's atmosphere, starting at takeoff and ending with your rendezvous with the damaged satellite.


The starting point for your mission is the troposphere, the lowest level of Earth's atmosphere. For the most part, this is where most of the aspects of the atmosphere that affect us on a daily basis occur. We breathe the air of the troposphere with its mix of mostly nitrogen with some oxygen and carbon dioxide, and we experience the weather that occurs in its highest reaches. In fact, the troposphere extends 14.5 kilometers above sea level, meaning that even while in a commercial airliner, we never leave the troposphere.

At only 14.5 kilometers up, you're nowhere near close enough to be able to service the Space Station. However, considering that your rocket travels at 8 kilometers per second, which is a bit slow for a rocket, to be honest, you'll be out of the troposphere in less than 2 seconds. In doing so, you'll be one of a small few to leave that layer of the atmosphere.


Continue upwards and you'll be in the stratosphere, the second of Earth's layers of the atmosphere. Here you'll find a few clouds, but the fact is that most of the weather takes place in the troposphere. Instead, you'll find only two real markers of human activity in the stratosphere. The first of these is the condition of the ozone layer, a blanket of air that helps to keep ultraviolet light out of the lower levels of the atmosphere. This is particularly helpful, as ultraviolet light can cause some serious damage to much of the life on Earth.

Second, you may see the distant jet trail of a spy plane. Most spy planes, such as the infamous U-2, fly in the stratosphere to avoid being shot down by less capable planes. However, as rockets can still reach them, they are still in danger.

Speaking of rockets in the stratosphere, as this layer of the atmosphere is only 40 kilometers from top to bottom, you'll be through it in 5 seconds from the time you entered it.

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