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Thermosphere and Beyond

The outer atmosphere is very thin; it contains the aurora.

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Thermosphere and Beyond

Can you take a field trip to the thermosphere? Maybe some day!

The inhabitants of the International Space Station and other space stations live in the thermosphere. They are not directly in the thermosphere, of course. They must be inside the station or inside a space suit at all times. Maybe some day you will join them!


The thermosphere is the layer above the mesosphere. It rises to 600 kilometers (372 miles) above the surface. The International Space Station and other space stations orbit Earth in this layer.

Temperature in the Thermosphere

Temperature increases with altitude in the thermosphere. Surprisingly, it may be higher than 1000° C (1800° F) near the top of this layer! The Sun’s energy there is very strong. The molecules absorb the Sun’s energy and are heated up. But there are so few gas molecules that the air still feels very cold. Molecules in the thermosphere gain or lose electrons. They then become charged particles called ions.


Earth's magnetosphere is controlled by the magnetic field. The magnetosphere protects the planet from the solar wind. The solar wind is ions that fly from the Sun to Earth very fast. The magnetosphere protects Earth's ozone layer. So life on Earth needs the protection of the magnetosphere.

Northern and Southern Lights

Have you ever seen a brilliant light show in the night sky? Sometimes the ions in the thermosphere glow at night. Storms on the Sun energize the ions and make them light up. In the Northern Hemisphere, the lights are called the northern lights, or aurora borealis. In the Southern Hemisphere, they are called southern lights, or aurora australis. They are referred to together as the aurora (Figure below and Figure below).

Picture of the aurora borealis

The aurora as seen from the Northern Hemisphere, known as the Aurora Borealis.

Picture of the aurora borealis from space

The aurora borealis as seen from the International Space Station.

You can learn about the aurora on this video: http://science.kqed.org/quest/video/illuminating-the-northern-lights/.


The exosphere is the layer above the thermosphere. This is the top of the atmosphere. The exosphere has no real upper limit; it just gradually merges with outer space. Gas molecules are very far apart in this layer, but they are really hot. Earth’s gravity is so weak in the exosphere that gas molecules sometimes just float off into space.


  • The solar wind is made of high speed particles from the Sun. The magnetosphere protects Earth from the solar wind.
  • Particles from the Sun energize ions in the thermosphere. This creates the northern and southern lights.
  • Gas molecules are exceedingly rare in the exosphere.

Explore More

Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What is the ultimate cause of the aurora borealis?
  2. What occurs in the Sun to release energy?
  3. What is plasma? What does it do?
  4. What is a solar storm?
  5. How long does it take a solar storm to reach Earth?
  6. What protects us from solar storms?
  7. Why do the aurora typically take place only in the polar regions?


  1. What are the properties of the thermosphere?
  2. Why are gas molecules so rare in the exosphere?
  3. What causes the aurora? Where in the atmosphere does it take place?




Spectacular light display that occurs near the poles; the aurora is in the thermosphere.


Outermost layer of the atmosphere; the gas molecules are extremely far apart.


Charged particles beyond the atmosphere; these particles are held in place by Earth's magnetic field.
solar wind

solar wind

High-speed protons and electrons that fly through the solar system from the Sun.


Outer atmosphere where gases are extremely rare.

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