Definitions for where the edge of space lies varies, but the most commonly used definition of outer space is everything beyond the Kármán line, which is 100 kilometers (62 mi) above the Earth's surface. (The United States sometimes defines outer space as everything beyond 50 miles (80 km) in altitude.)
The term "outer space" was first recorded by H. G. Wells in 1901. The shorter term space is actually older, being first used to mean the region beyond Earth's sky in John Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667.
Outer space is the closest natural approximation of a perfect vacuum. It has effectively no friction, allowing stars, planets and moons to move freely along ideal gravitational trajectories. But no vacuum is truly perfect, not even in intergalactic space where there are still a few hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter. (For comparison, the air we breathe contains about 1019 molecules per cubic centimeter.) The deep vacuum of space could make it an attractive environment for certain industrial processes, for instance those that require ultraclean surfaces; however, it is currently much less costly to create an equivalent vacuum on Earth than to leave the Earth's gravity well.
Stars, planets, asteroids, and moons keep their atmospheres by gravitational attraction, and as such, atmospheres have no clearly delineated boundary: the density of atmospheric gas simply decreases with distance from the object. The Earth's atmospheric pressure drops to about 1 Pa (10-3 Torr) at 100 km of altitude, the Kármán line which is a common definition of the boundary with outer space. Beyond this line, isotropic gas pressure rapidly becomes insignificant when compared to radiation pressure from the sun and the dynamic pressure of the solar wind, so the definition of pressure becomes difficult to interpret. The thermosphere in this range has large gradients of pressure, temperature and composition, and varies greatly due to space weather. Astrophysicists prefer to use number density to describe these environments, in units of particles per cubic centimetre.
But although it meets the definition of outer space, the atmospheric density within the first few hundred kilometers above the Kármán line is still sufficient to produce significant drag on satellites. Most artificial satellites operate in this region called low earth orbit and must fire their engines every few days to maintain orbit. The drag here is low enough that it could theoretically be overcome by radiation pressure on solar sails, a proposed propulsion system for interplanetary travel. Planets are too massive for their trajectories to be affected by these forces, although their atmospheres are eroded by the solar winds.
All of the observable universe is filled with large numbers of photons, the so-called cosmic background radiation, and quite likely a correspondingly large number of neutrinos. The current temperature of this radiation is about 3 K, or −270 °C (−454 °F).
Contrary to popular belief, a person suddenly exposed to the vacuum would not explode, freeze to death or die from boiling blood, but would take a short while to die by asphyxiation (suffocation). Air would immediately leave the lungs due to the enormous pressure gradient. Any oxygen dissolved in the blood would empty into the lungs to try to equalize the partial pressure gradient. Once the deoxygenated blood arrives at the brain, death would quickly follow.
Humans and animals exposed to vacuum will lose consciousness after a few seconds and die of hypoxia within minutes. Blood and other body fluids do boil when their pressure drops below 6.3 kPa, (47 Torr,) the vapor pressure of water at body temperature. This condition is called ebullism. The steam may bloat the body to twice its normal size and slow circulation, but tissues are elastic and porous enough to prevent rupture. Ebullism is slowed by the pressure containment of blood vessels, so some blood remains liquid. Swelling and ebullism can be reduced by containment in a flight suit. Shuttle astronauts wear a fitted elastic garment called the Crew Altitude Protection Suit (CAPS) which prevents ebullism at pressures as low as 2 kPa (15 Torr). Water vapor would also rapidly evaporate off from exposed areas such as the lungs, cornea of the eye and mouth, cooling the body. Rapid evaporative cooling of the skin will create frost, particularly in the mouth, but this is not a significant hazard. Space may be cold, but it's mostly vacuum and can hardly transfer heat, so the main temperature worry for space suits is how to get rid of naturally generated body heat.
Cold or oxygen-rich atmospheres can sustain life at pressures much lower than atmospheric, as long as the density of oxygen is similar to that of standard sea-level atmosphere. The colder air temperatures found at altitudes of up to 3 km generally compensate for the lower pressures there. Above this altitude, oxygen enrichment is necessary to prevent altitude sickness, and spacesuits are necessary to prevent ebullism above 19 km. Most spacesuits use only 20 kPa (150 Torr) of pure oxygen, just enough to sustain full consciousness. This pressure is high enough to prevent ebullism, but simple evaporation of blood can still cause decompression sickness and gas embolisms if not managed.
Rapid decompression can be much more dangerous than vacuum exposure itself. Even if the victim does not hold his breath, venting through the windpipe may be too slow to prevent the fatal rupture of the delicate alveoli of the lungs. Eardrums and sinuses may be ruptured by rapid decompression, soft tissues may bruise and seep blood, and the stress of shock will accelerate oxygen consumption leading to hypoxia. Injuries caused by rapid decompression are called barotrauma. A pressure drop as small as 100 Torr, (13 kPa,) which produces no symptoms if it is gradual, may be fatal if occurs suddenly.
There is a major difference between sub-orbital and orbital spaceflights. The minimum altitude for a stable orbit around Earth (that is, one without significant atmospheric drag) begins at around 350 km (220 miles) above mean sea level. A common misunderstanding about the boundary to space is that orbit occurs simply by reaching this altitude. Achieving orbital speed can theoretically occur at any altitude, although atmospheric drag precludes an orbit that is too low. At sufficient speed, an airplane would need a way to keep it from flying off into space, but at present, this speed is several times greater than anything within reasonable technology.
In the context of space weather, geospace is the region of outer space near the Earth. Geospace includes the upper region of the atmosphere, as well as the ionosphere and magnetosphere. The Van Allen radiation belts also lie within the geospace.
There is no clear boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space as the density of the atmosphere gradually decreases as the altitude increases. Nevertheless, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has established the Kármán line at an altitude of 100 km (62 miles) as a working definition for the boundary between aeronautics and astronautics. This is used because above an altitude of roughly 100 km, as Theodore von Kármán calculated, a vehicle would have to travel faster than orbital velocity in order to derive sufficient aerodynamic lift from the atmosphere to support itself. The United States designates people who travel above an altitude of 80 km (50 statute miles) as astronauts. During re-entry, roughly 120 km (75 miles) marks the boundary where atmospheric drag becomes noticeable, depending on the ballistic coefficient of the vehicle.
Geospace is populated at very low densities by electrically charged particles, whose motions are controlled by the Earth's magnetic field. These plasmas form a medium from which storm-like disturbances powered by the solar wind can drive electrical currents into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
During geomagnetic storms two regions of geospace, the radiation belts and the ionosphere, can become strongly disturbed. These disturbances interfere with the functioning of satellite communications and navigation (GPS) technologies. These storms increase fluxes of energetic electrons that can permanently damage satellite electronics, and can also be a hazard to astronauts, even in low-Earth orbit.
A common misconception is that people in orbit are outside Earth's gravity because they are "floating". They are floating because they are in "free fall": they are accelerating toward Earth, along with their spacecraft, but are simultaneously moving sideways fast enough that the "fall" away from a straight-line path merely keeps them in orbit at a constant distance above Earth's surface. Earth's gravity reaches out far past the Van Allen belt and keeps the Moon in orbit at an average distance of 384,403 km (238,857 miles).
The absence of air makes geospace (and the surface of the Moon) ideal locations for astronomy at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, as evidenced by the spectacular pictures sent back by the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing light from about 13.7 billion years ago — almost to the time of the Big Bang — to be observed.
The outer boundary of geospace is the interface between the magnetosphere and the solar wind. The inner boundary is the ionosphere. Alternately, geospace is the region of space between the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the outermost reaches of the Earth’s magnetic field. The region between Earth's atmosphere and the Moon is sometimes referred to as cis-Lunar space.