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Celestial body atmosphere
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Celestial body atmosphere

Atmosphere is the general name for a layer of gases that may surround a material body of sufficient mass. The gases are attracted by the gravity of the body, and held fast if gravity is sufficient and the atmosphere's temperature is low. Some planets consist mainly of various gases, and thus have very deep atmospheres (see gas giant).

Atmospheric gases are lost to space when the individual molecules' thermal motion exceeds the escape velocity of the body. Since a gas at any particular temperature will have molecules moving at a wide range of velocities, there will almost always be some slow leakage of gas into space. Lighter molecules move faster than heavier ones with the same thermal kinetic energy, and so gases of low molecular weight are lost more rapidly than those of high molecular weight. It is thought that Venus and Mars may have both lost much of their water when, after being photodissociated into hydrogen and oxygen by solar ultraviolet, the hydrogen escaped. Earth's ozone layer helps to prevent this.

Other mechanisms that can cause atmosphere depletion are solar wind-induced sputtering, impact erosion, weathering, and sequestration—sometimes referred to as "freezing out"—into the regolith and polar caps. Interstellar planets, theoretically, may also retain thick atmospheres.

See also: Earth's atmosphere, stellar atmosphere, Interstellar planet