Named from the Greek θερμός (thermos) meaning heat, the thermosphere begins about 80 kilometres (50 mi) above the Earth. At these high altitudes, the residual atmospheric gases sort into strata according to molecular mass (see turbosphere). Thermospheric temperatures increase with altitude due to absorption of highly energetic solar radiation by the small amount of residual oxygen still present. Temperatures are highly dependent on solar activity, and can rise to 1,500 °C (2,730 °F). Radiation causes the atmosphere particles in this layer to become electrically charged (see ionosphere), enabling radio waves to bounce off and be received beyond the horizon. In the exosphere, beginning at 500 to 1,000 kilometres (310 to 620 mi) above the Earth's surface, the atmosphere turns into space.
The highly diluted gas in this layer can reach 2,500 °C (4,530 °F) during the day. Even though the temperature is so high, one would not feel warm in the thermosphere, because it is so near vacuum that there is not enough contact with the few atoms of gas to transfer much heat. A normal thermometer would read significantly below 0 °C (32 °F), because the energy lost by thermal radiation would exceed the energy acquired from the atmospheric gas by direct contact. In the anacoustic zone above 160 kilometres (99 mi), the density is so low that molecular interactions are too infrequent to permit the transmission of sound.
The dynamics of the lower thermosphere (below approximately 120 kilometres (75 mi)) are dominated by atmospheric tide, which is driven, in part, by the very significant diurnal heating. The atmospheric tide dissipates above this level since molecular concentrations do not support the coherent motion needed for fluid flow.