The Planet Earth

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on space and time. Every life form we know of evolved on Earth, and life on Earth has undergone a number of mass extinctions possibly due to the Sun's path through the galaxy. Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth in 1957 and the International Space Station launched in 1998.

Last updated on 5th June 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. Characteristics of Earth

Earth is the third closest planet to the Sun, and completes one orbit about every 365 days. Earth is larger, denser, and more massive than Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and has one natural satellite, the Moon[1].

Photograph of astronaut Mark C. Lee above the Earth.

Astronaut Mark C. Lee above the Earth. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Earth is the only place in the universe where life is known to exist, and almost all life on Earth is fuelled by energy from the Sun. It takes light just over 8 minutes to travel to Earth, across a distance of about 150 million km. This distance is defined as one Astronomical Unit (AU).

Over 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered with salt-water oceans. The rest is composed of continents and islands. The interior of the Earth contains a thick layer of solid mantle, a liquid outer core that generates a magnetic field, and a solid inner core of iron. The Earth's axis is tilted by about 23.4°, and this is what causes us to experience seasons.

Shortly after its formation, about 4.54 billion years ago, the Earth had an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, which soon escaped the gravity of Earth, and were replaced by heavier molecules like water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. These were released from the Earth by volcanoes[2]. During the Earth's first 700 million years, the surface was bombarded with comets, which brought water and other elements and molecules, including amino acids, the 'building blocks of life'[3a].

Planets in the Solar system, sizes are approximately to scale. Jupiter is the largest planet, followed by Saturn.

The planets, sizes approximately to scale. Image credit: Dave Jarvis/CC-SA.

The four inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, and the Moon. Sizes are approximately to scale, and the composition is shown.

The four inner planets to scale. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

2. Life on Earth

The first life on Earth consisted of simple cells that may have evolved about 3.8 billion years ago, with bacteria evolving shortly after[3b]. Photosynthesising bacteria began producing oxygen about 2.5 billion years ago. This changed the atmosphere, and poisoned almost all life that had evolved before[4].

Eukaryotic cells evolved over 1.5 billion years ago[5], and divided into three groups - the ancestors of plants, fungi, and animals - within a few hundred million years[6]. There have been at least five mass extinction events since then. The latest occurred about 65 million years ago, and wiped out 76% of species, including many different species of dinosaurs[7].

Australopithecus evolved about 4 million years ago[8]. These were the first hominids to create stone tools[9]. Homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthals, evolved about 400,000 years ago, and died out about 30,000 years ago[10], and Homo sapiens, human beings, evolved about 200,000 years ago[11].

Photograph of astronaut Bruce McCandless II above the Earth.

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II above the Earth. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

Humans began to form cities about 11,000 years ago[12], and have had a significant effect on the environment since the industrial revolution, which began in the late 1700s. This is because the industrial revolution led to an increase in amount of coal that was burnt, and this produces carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is too heavy to escape into space and so builds up, forming a layer in the atmosphere that traps the light of the Sun[13]. This is causing the average temperature of the Earth to rise[14].

As the temperature of the Earth increases, glaciers will melt, there will be more extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy rainfall[15], and many species will be wiped out[16]. It's hoped that human intervention can prevent this from happening[17].

NASA observes the Earth using the Earth Observing System. This is composed of a series of satellites that orbit, and monitor the Earth. The first of these satellites was launched in 1997, and there are currently about 25 satellites in operation[18].

Depiction of satellites currently working as part of the Earth Observing System.

Satellites in the Earth Observing System. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

3. References

  1. NASA, 'Planetary Fact Sheet', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. NASA, 'How did Earth's atmosphere form?', last accessed 01-06-17.

  3. (a, b) NASA, 'Near-Earth Objects and Life On Earth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  4. Kump, L. R. and Barley, M. E., 2007, 'Increased subaerial volcanism and the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.5 billion years ago', Nature, 448, pp.1033-1036.

  5. Max Planck Society, 'Eukaryotes: A new timetable of evolution', last accessed 01-06-17.

  6. Eme, L., Sharpe, S. C., Brown, M. W. and Roger, A. J., 2014, 'On the age of eukaryotes: evaluating evidence from fossils and molecular clocks', Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology, 6.

  7. Barnosky, A. D., et al, 2011, 'Has the Earth's sixth mass extinction already arrived?', Nature, 471, pp.51-57.

  8. Leakey, M. G., Feibel, C. S., McDougall, I. and Walker, A., 1995, 'New four-million-year-old hominid species from Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya', Nature, 376, pp.565-571.

  9. McPherron, S. P., et al, 2010, 'Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia', Nature, 466, pp.857–860.

  10. Green, R. E., et al, 2006, 'Analysis of one million base pairs of Neanderthal DNA', Nature, 444, pp.330-336.

  11. McDougall, I., Brown, F. H. and Fleagle, J. G., 2005, 'Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia', Nature, 433, pp.733-736.

  12. Gates, C., 2013, 'Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome', Routledge.

  13. NASA, 'A blanket around the Earth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  14. NASA, 'Climate change: How do we know?', last accessed 01-06-17.

  15. NASA, 'The consequences of climate change', last accessed 01-06-17.

  16. Urban, M. C., 2015, 'Accelerating extinction risk from climate change', Science, 348, pp.571-573.

  17. NASA, 'Government Resources', last accessed 01-06-17.

  18. NASA, 'Current Missions', last accessed 01-06-17.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.

Space & Time

Pre 20th Century theories

1. History of Constellations

2. History of Latitude

3. History of Longitude

4. Models of the Universe

5. Force and Energy

6. Newton's theory of Gravity

7. Age of the Universe

20th Century discoveries

1. Special Relativity

2. General Relativity

3. Big Bang theory

4. History of Galaxies

5. Life Cycles of Stars

6. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

7. Neutron Stars and Black Holes

Missions to planets

1. The planet Mercury

2. The planet Venus

3. The planet Earth

3.1 The Earth's Moon

4. The planet Mars

4.1 The Asteroid Belt

5. The planet Jupiter

6. The planet Saturn

7. The planet Uranus

8. The planet Neptune

Beyond the planets

1. Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

2. Pioneer and Voyager

3. Discoveries of Exoplanets