One of the most remarkable features of the solar system is the variety of planetary atmospheres. Earth and Venus are of comparable size and mass, yet the surface of Venus bakes at 460 degrees Celsius under an ocean of carbon dioxide that bears down with the weight of a kilometer of water. Callisto and Titan—planet-size moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively—are nearly the same size, yet Titan has a nitrogen-rich atmosphere thicker than our own, whereas Callisto is essentially airless. What causes such extremes? If we knew, it would help explain why Earth teems with life while its planetary siblings appear to be dead. Knowing how atmospheres evolve is also essential to determining which planets beyond our solar system might be habitable.
A planet can acquire a gaseous cloak in many ways: it can release vapors from its interior, it can capture volatile materials from comets and asteroids when they strike, and its gravity can pull in gases from interplanetary space. But planetary scientists have begun to appreciate that the escape of gases plays as big a role as the supply. Although Earth’s atmosphere may seem as permanent as the rocks, it gradually leaks back into space. The loss rate is currently tiny, only about three kilograms of hydrogen and 50 grams of helium (the two lightest gases) per second, but even that trickle can be significant over geologic time, and the rate was probably once much higher. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A small leak can sink a great ship.” The atmospheres of terrestrial planets and outer-planet satellites we see today are like the ruins of medieval castles—remnants of riches that have been subject to histories of plunder and decay. The atmospheres of smaller bodies are more like crude forts, poorly defended and extremely vulnerable.