KIDS ASK! Where Did The Air Come From?

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:


Science is awesome for so many reasons, but one thing we love about learning science is how it helps you to think differently about things you don’t usually notice in your day-to-day life.  Like air.  Air is the source of our life, carrying oxygen to our cells so they can function.  We take about 20,000 breaths of air every day and if we’re lucky, we hardly ever have to think about it.  It’s easy to think of air as just, well…boring.  It’s just there, softly surrounding us and sometimes making cool breezes or big storms.   In fact, the layer of air around the earth, called the atmosphere, is such a rare, unbelievably lucky mixture that we’ve never seen its equal anywhere else in the known universe. The story of how the air came to be is actually one of the most EPIC, amazing stories in all of science.  So what is this air we breathe?  Buckle up science friends, because the story of our air is a truly wild ride –it’s a story of burning stars, mega-asteroids, monster volcanoes, comets, and no less than the beginning of all of LIFE! 

It’s a story SO epic, we’re going to tell it in two parts. Come back next time for the sequel, and you’ll never see the stuff in your lungs right now the same way again.



The story of the air you are breathing RIGHT NOW began in a place like this one

About 4.6 Billion years ago, before our solar system and planets even existed, a small star went supernova.  The mighty shockwave of that explosion compressed a huge – like light-years-across-huge — cloud of gas and dust hanging out nearby.  Over time this mega-cloud pushed in closer, and closer, and closer, until there was enough hydrogen and helium being pressed together, and then … BOOM!

The sun and planets of our solar system

Sol, our sun, IGNITED into its massive, burning existence.  This explosive beginning used a lot of hydrogen and helium from the cloud, and left a lot of other stuff, like gases, elements, and chemical compounds it didn’t need.  The energy and heat of the newly ignited sun somehow ZAPPED all of the stuff hanging out into big drops of molten rock and metal called chondrules.  Over time these became… you guessed it… THE PLANETS! 

Chondrules can be made of many, many different combinations of elements. This kind, Olivine, is made of Iron, Silicon, and Magnesium. There’s a lot of Olivine right under the Earth’s crust.
Antonio Ciccolella
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, here in the middle of this massive, churning, stormy cloud of molten rock and metal, you might ask: “Hey! Why do we have to go back this far to understand the air?”  Because, science friends, the ingredients in the air you’re breathing right now have been around since the BEGINNING OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM.  The stuff you’re breathing is really, really old and has been through a LOT to get to you.  All of the stuff that formed the planets is made from elements and compounds that were made in space, and those elements and compounds then gradually formed our atmosphere.  So, what you are breathing is VERY old, and a lot of it was made in SPACE (but not all of it, there’s a Part 2 after all).

An artist’s drawing of our very early, VERY molten earth. It’s Earth’s baby picture!

Slowly gravity began to push the chondrules together into the planets of our solar system.  The early earth was a ball of space-rock and space-metal, and it resembled a super-hot ball of lava, with melted rock and metal just oozing from the center to the surface and churning all around in an ocean of lava.  Over time, MILLIONS of comets and asteroids also smashed into the early earth, adding more chemicals and elements into the hot, melty mix.  So not only is that nice fresh air very old and made in space, some of it, especially elements like nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon, were delivered to your lungs by massive comet impact.  Oh yeah – and another very important player in this epic tale, water, was ALSO made in space and delivered to this planet by comets billions of years ago.  Yeah.  That water. That you’re drinking!

This is an artist’s drawing of an asteroid that collided with Earth later in earth’s formation. The one that hit the early Earth was MUCH bigger.

All those comet impacts were tiny pipsqueaks compared to the moment that another whole PLANET, called Theia, hit the earth and broke apart, in an unimaginably massive smash!  This interplanetary mash-up was 100 MILLION TIMES BIGGER than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs!  When Theia hit the earth, some scientists believe that Theia may have also brought another huge amount of  water to the still-hot ball of earth.  The extra chunks of Theia left over eventually came together and became our own wonderful moon.  Our beautiful moon will go on to play a big part in the air you enjoy, but for now let’s leave the earth and moon to re-form and chill out a bit after their mega-mega-MEGA-crash. 

See, we told you the story of air was wild!  And the air hasn’t even been made yet!  But out of all these crashes and smashes and explosions in our early solar system, the ingredients are coming together to make our earth, our air, and a little thing called LIFE ITSELF.

Take a deep breath, and we’ll see you for Part 2 next time. 

Sources and Further Reading:

The Supernova that Kickstarted the Sun:

The Formation of our Solar System:

Theia Hits the Earth:

The Moon and its Connection to Water:

Comets and the Amazing Things they Deliver:


A picture of a Red Giant Star with a unique spiral pattern.
ALMACC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we always make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:


Here at High Touch High Tech, we love talking about all the cool stuff that happens on our beautiful blue planet Earth, but we also love talking about SPACE!  From giant planets to fiery stars to mysterious black holes, space is a subject that always inspires wonder.  Our young astronomers love learning about the “life cycles” of stars, and how stars coalesce from giant, dusty nebulas, ignite, and eventually burn through all of their fuel, “dying” in a supernova full of the elements that make up our very own bodies!  It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are all made of stars, but when we teach about stars, there’s always a quiet moment of realization that our own sun, Sol, is a star too, and one day will come to the end of its “life” as the star that we see. That’s when someone usually asks the kinda-scary question: what will happen when our sun dies?

Our own star, Sol, center of our Solar System.

Well, science friends, there’s GOOD NEWS and there’s BAD NEWS.  Bad news first? OK: Sol will eventually run out of hydrogen and helium fuel, as all stars do.  When that happens, the results will be catastrophic and will probably destroy the earth.  Now the good news!  Scientists are sure that that time will be very, very far in the future, like several BILLIONS of years far.  So, it will not be a problem in our lifetimes.  We also believe by the time the sun does go out, with science on our side, humans, animals, and plants from the earth will be safely living on other planets. So even when the sun dies, the good things we love about earth will be able to go on, even if they are in a different place.  It’s OK to feel sad or scared about the idea that earth will come to an end. All scientists know that even though it’s a little scary, it’s also true that our universe is always changing, and nothing stays the same forever.  That’s just the way the universe works. The end of our sun is a normal, natural thing that is probably happening to several other stars right now, out there in space.  We hope it helps to know that it’s a scientific fact that the whole universe is always changing, but nothing is ever really lost forever. It just changes shape and becomes something new.

This is a picture of new young stars being created out of the supernovas of old stars, in a place called the Magellanic Cloud. Aren’t they beautiful?
X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. Potsdam/L. Oskinova, et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what will happen?  Astrophysicists, the awesome scientists who study stars, have observed many different kinds of stars going through many different kinds of changes.  When Astrophysicists observe stars, the color and size of the star can tell them about how old a star is, and how much fuel it still has.  There are many types of stars, with cool names like “Yellow Dwarf,” which are small and common, and “Red Supergiant,” which are huge, old, and very hot.  Our friend Sol is a Yellow Dwarf star, and is now about 4.5 billion years old.  Sol is currently halfway through its life as a star, which means that it still has plenty of hydrogen and helium fuel to keep shining for another 4.5 billion years.  But when that hydrogen and helium start to run out, Sol is going to change from a Yellow Dwarf into a Red Giant, and that’s when the trouble starts for Earth!

A scientific artist’s drawing of a Red Giant Star.
BaperookamoCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When a star becomes a Red Giant, it means the star is running out of hydrogen and helium fuel in its center, and starts to collapse in on itself, getting smaller at first.  But, as the star collapses in, it actually pushes more fuel together and the star gets a kind of “second wind,” burning even hotter and puffing up to HUGE size.  When Sol becomes a super-hot Red Giant, it will become so big that it will probably swallow up the Inner Planets closest to the sun, our neighbors Mercury and Venus, and then… yup, you guessed it.  It’s coming for Earth.  Scientists are not sure whether the Earth will be completely swallowed up by the Red Giant Sol, or if it will be just burned so hot that nothing can live there anymore.  The Outer Planets that are further away, like Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, will be pushed even further away by all of this and will probably be OK.  Astrophysicists believe that some moons of Saturn, like Titan, actually hold water and could support life, so let’s imagine humans far in the future watching all of this happen from there!  Maybe there will even be Red Giant-Watching Parties all across the galaxies of space!

Yellow Dwarf Sol and the Inner and Outer Planets. The Earth is the third closest to Sol. Because it is so close, Earth will probably be swallowed up into Sol when it becomes a Red Giant.

Finally, after another long, long time, when all of its energy is burned up, Astrophysicists believe that Sol will probably shrink down and become a White Dwarf Star, a dense, heavy, star with very little fuel left, mostly made of all of the heavy elements like gold, zinc, and iron that are the byproducts of stars burning their hydrogen and helium.  A White Dwarf is sometimes called a “ghost star.” They have a dusty appearance because their gravity is so heavy, they pull in and disintegrate any asteroid or comet that comes near.  White Dwarf Sol won’t be very bright and any humans on Titan probably won’t be able to see it anymore, but hopefully, no matter where we humans go, we will always remember our old friend Sol.

A picture of White Dwarf Stars taken by the Hubble Telescope.

Sources and Further Information:

An Astrophysicist explains Sol’s changes clearly for you, short version:

Sol’s changes by an Astronomer, longer version:

Detailed explanation of the changes Sol will go through:

An excellent examination of mysterious White Dwarf Stars:

A WHOLE IMAX MOVIE about Sol and how its going out could affect earth!