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:

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