ESCAPE VELOCITY: Earth as a Nearly Closed System

escape velocity

Last Updated: Jan 5, 2019

Earth is a nearly closed system

Closed System

The escape velocity of Earth is the speed at which a free object must travel to escape into space from a planet’s gravitational pull.

Earth’s escape velocity is 11.186 km/s. So if a free body travels at this speed, it can break away from Earth’s gravity into outer space.

Atmospheric composition is related to escape velocity. For example, Earth loses gases like hydrogen and helium because it isn’t large enough to hold onto them.

But Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus hold on tight to these gases because they are much bigger in size. In fact, their atmospheres are mostly these gases.

Earth exchanges little matter to and from the outside

Earth is nearly a closed system. We lose some hydrogen and helium from the atmosphere due to its escape velocity.

And we get the occasional meteor strike. But in general, Earth is a closed system because it doesn’t exchange matter from or to the outside.

Earth does exchange energy due to incoming solar radiation. The sun is always heating is surrounding. But little matter leaves or enters Earth.

The reason why Earth’s atmosphere composition is mostly nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) is because their kinetic speed is slower than Earth’s escape velocity.

Remember that when carbon dioxide levels increase or decrease in the atmosphere, it doesn’t physically escape Earth. Rather oceans soak up CO2 like a sponge from biomass photosynthesis.

Venus and Mars have similar escape velocities to Earth

Earth Mars Venus Escape Velocity

Planets like Venus and Mars are similar in size to Earth. So their escape velocity is very close at respectively 10.36 km/s and 11.2 km/s.

But if you compare Earth’s atmosphere, Venus and Mars is about 95% CO2. Long ago, Earth may have had a similar atmosphere.

But it’s because biomass in Earth’s oceans that absorb CO2 removed large amounts from the atmosphere. It sequesters CO2 giving us higher proportion of nitrogen and oxygen.

The absence of oceans and biomass on Venus and Mars means they retain an atmosphere heavy in carbon dioxide without oxygen.

Jupiter’s enormous mass means a high escape velocity

Planets like Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus are enormous in size. This has a direct correlation with their escape velocities.

Their escape velocities are high enough to retain gases like hydrogen and helium.

For example, Jupiter has an escape velocity of 59.5 km/s. If you compare this to Earth, it’s 5 times faster than Earth.

So this is why Jupiter’s atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen and helium.

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