Monday, October 10, 2011
Earth: History, Composition and Atmosphere
Earth – Overview
Earth, our home, is the third planet from the sun. It is the only planet known to have an atmosphere containing free oxygen, oceans of liquid water on its surface, and, of course, life.
Earth is the fifth largest of the planets in the solar system — smaller than the four gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but larger than the three other rocky planets, Mercury, Mars and Venus. It has a diameter of roughly 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers), and is round because gravity pulls matter into a ball, although it is not perfectly round, instead being more of an "oblate spheroid" whose spin causes it to be squashed at its poles and swollen at the equator.
Roughly 71 percent of Earth's surface is covered by water, most of it in the oceans. About a fifth of its atmosphere is made up of oxygen, produced by plants.
The Earth spins on an imaginary line called an axis that runs from the north pole to the south pole, while also orbiting the sun. It takes Earth 24 hours to complete a rotation on its axis, and roughly 365 days to complete an orbit around the sun.
The Earth's axis of rotation is tilted in relation to the ecliptic plane, an imaginary surface through Earth's orbit around the sun. This means the northern and southern hemispheres will sometimes point toward or away from the sun depending on the time of year, varying the amount of light they receive and causing the seasons.
Earth's orbit is not a perfect circle, but is rather an oval-shaped ellipse, like that of the orbits of all the other planets. Earth is a bit closer to the sun in early January and farther away in July, although this variation has a much smaller effect than the heating and cooling caused by the tilt of Earth's axis. Earth happens to lie within the so-called "Goldilocks zone" around its star, where temperatures are just right to maintain liquid water on its surface.
Earth probably formed at roughly the same time as the sun and other planets some 4.6 billion years ago, when the solar system coalesced from a giant, rotating cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula. As the nebula collapsed because of its gravity, it spun faster and flattened into a disk. Most of the material was pulled toward the center to form the sun. Other particles within the disk collided and stuck together to form ever-larger bodies, including the Earth. The solar wind from the sun was so powerful that it swept away most of the lighter elements, such as hydrogen and helium, from the innermost worlds, rendering Earth and its siblings into small, rocky planets.
Scientists think Earth started off as a waterless mass of rock. Radioactive materials in the rock and increasing pressure deep within the Earth generated enough heat to melt Earth's interior, causing some chemicals to rise to the surface and form water, while others became the gases of the atmosphere. Recent evidence suggests that Earth's crust and oceans may have formed within about 200 million years after the planet had taken shape.
The history of Earth is divided into four eons — starting with the earliest, these are the Hadean, Archean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic. The first three eons, which together lasted nearly 4 billion years, are together known as the Precambrian. Evidence for life has bee found in the Archaean about 3.8 billion years ago, but life did not become abundant until the Phanerozoic.
The Phanerozoic is divided into three eras — starting with the earliest, these are the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. The Paleozoic Era saw the development of many kinds of animals and plants in the seas and on land, the Mesozoic Era was the age of dinosaurs, and the Cenozoic Era we are in currently is the age of mammals.
Most of the fossils seen in Paleozoic rocks are invertebrate animals lacking backbones, such as corals, mollusks and trilobites. Fish are first found about 450 million years ago, while amphibians appear roughly 380 million years ago. By 300 million years ago, large forests and swamps covered the land, and the earliest fossils of reptiles appear during this period as well.