Scientists: Oceans, clouds, rain possible on distant planet
A graphic shows surface temperature variations on Gliese 581d and how wind patterns would moderate the climate.
May 18th, 2011
10:57 AM ET

Scientists: Oceans, clouds, rain possible on distant planet

Astronomers in France say a rocky planet orbiting a star that's one of our closest galactic neighbors may have all the ingredients to make us earthlings feel right at home.

The planet Gliese 581d, orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581 about 20 light years from Earth, could support oceans, clouds and rainfall with a greenhouse effect that would moderate its temperatures, the team of scientists from the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in Paris says in a study published this month in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

If you're thinking  the Gliese 581 system and possibly habitable planets sound familiar, you're right. Just last year, scientists reported that another planet, Gliese 581g, was a prime candidate to support life.

More recent studies have cast doubt on whether Gliese 581g even exists, although one of the scientists who claimed its discovery, astronomer Steven Vogt of the University of California-Santa Cruz, has defended his work, according to a report on

With the 581g debate in mind, the scientists in Paris decided to take another look at 581d, which they note is seven times the size of Earth. When it was discovered in 2007, 581d was thought not to be capable of sustaining life, because it has permanent day and night sides, with the night side too cold for living organisms, and it gets only a third as much energy from its star as Earth gets from the sun.

The Paris scientists used a new atmospheric simulation model to look at 581d. And here's what they found, according to a press release:

"With a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere - a likely scenario on such a large planet - the climate of Gliese 581d is not only stable against collapse, but warm enough to have oceans, clouds and rainfall."

The fact that 581d orbits a red dwarf star makes a big difference, they found.

On Earth, a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering reflects heat from our sun in the form of blue light back into space. This helps keep Earth from overheating. But as the atmosphere on 581d is absorbing only red light, Rayleigh scattering doesn't come into play.

"This means that (light) can penetrate much deeper into the atmosphere, where it heats the planet effectively due to the greenhouse effect of the CO2 atmosphere," the scientists said in the press release.

Their model also showed "the daylight heating was efficiently redistributed across the planet by the atmosphere, preventing atmospheric collapse on the night side or at the poles," they said.

But don't pack up the spaceship just yet.

"While Gliese 581d may be habitable there are other possibilities; it could have kept some atmospheric hydrogen, like Uranus and Neptune, or the fierce wind from its star during its infancy could even have torn its atmosphere away entirely," the scientists said.

And even if you left now, in a current-technology spaceship, it would take 300,000 years to get to the Gliese system.

So there's plenty of time to figure it out. Or get Capt. James T. Kirk and the starship Enterprise to explore strange new worlds.

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Filed under: Space
soundoff (364 Responses)
  1. Scottish Mama

    So Planet jumping, who goes first when the big one comes, republicans or democrats, wealthy or poor?

    May 18, 2011 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. BLT

    Oh great! Possibly another planet for humans to destroy.....I don't think the Aliens would want us!

    May 18, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  3. Seraphim0

    So... a tidally locked planet is a possible planet for life? With ethe likely temperature extremes? I find this highly unlikely.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Raymond

    This is blasphemy. Completely against the Biblical teachings.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
    • JD

      Hope your being sarcastic, since the bible is a fairy tale.

      May 18, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Lanfear


      May 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Newsjoke

      Really? How so? Enlighten me please.

      May 19, 2011 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
  5. bullet

    about 20 light years from Earth close one lol

    May 18, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. adam

    And even if you left now, in a current-technology spaceship, it would take 300,000 years to get to the Gliese system.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. bullet

    would you get the air miles?

    May 18, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
    • pc

      nope – there's no air in space...

      May 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  8. al anton

    So who cares? This is meaningless. Scientists assume that life "just happens" in water. WRONG. Life does not just happen. It has to be created. God has created on Earth and only the Earth. OK, libs - go ahead and tee off on me. I'm used to it. You can speculate all you want, I'll keep the Word of God.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      hahaha...that's awesome. You just made my day.

      May 18, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Prove it

      May 18, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Lanfear

      I thought God created the earth, not just life on it. And if that is so, who created these other planets? You aren't a scientist, so don't try. Just stick to your ignorant bubble of "bible teachings".

      May 18, 2011 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
    • kat

      i hope when we do go to another planet, they dont let one bible nut on board

      May 18, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Anabelle

      You can also speculate all you want. Unless some dude stands in front of me and makes a bush burn, and creates life out of nothing, I'll keep my physical proof of life's evolution by my side. Bible thumpers are such freaks.

      May 18, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'Scientists assume that life "just happens" in water'
      they dont 'assume life hjust happens' at all.

      And why do you think god would only put life on earth and not on other planets? even the catholic church has come out and said it has no problem with the idea of life on other planets.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • PROD

      @ Mike and Mary and al anton. God created science, he created logic, he created everything. So, if we find microscopic life anywhere else, that does not mean there is no God. It's just another way to show off His greatness. Just know that it wasn't an accident that we, inteligent life forms, exists.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cooluniverse

      I do not see anything in your bible about planets, so i guess they just don't exist. By the way, didn't your church also say that the universe revolved around the sun?

      May 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'Just know that it wasn't an accident that we, inteligent life forms, exists.'
      Sorry but it was pure luck that you were ever born at all. There is no plan, there is no reason, we just...are.
      The universe doesnt give a monkeys about any of us and will not even notice when we eventually all disappear.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim0

      Anton, my invisible sky god can beat up your invisible sky god.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      @ Prod
      This still doesn't prove anything. I just don't understand how can you say what you just said without having any proof.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • ejes

      Jesus promised the end of all wicked people. Odin promised the end of all ice giants. I don't see any ice giants around. Odin 1, Jesus 0.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bullet

    have god move it closer

    May 18, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  10. Thor

    How about we stop talking about it and spend the rediculous amounts that we do on warfare on space and job creation instead. Just maybe we can trim 300,000 years down and discover new ways to travel.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      This ^

      May 18, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim0

      Do you have any idea the types of technologies that have been diseminated to the general public for the betterment of mankind that were developed due to the space program?

      Didn't think so.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cranky

      Actually, we won't need to do this.

      Within 20 years, commercial space travel will be past its initial stages and private firms will be accelerating the pace of space technology.Then the positive feedback loop really begins.

      Government (NASA in this instance) is nothing more than R&D.

      May 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Gaither

      Space program still needs government subsidization though. It is currently too expensive to get to space, and that expense outweighs most of the potential for profits. For that reason, private enterprises simply are not going to have much interest in space for the foreseeable future. There are exceptions of course, but I don't think anything will happen for a while, unfortunately. I think he's correct,though, we do need to dump a major percentage of our GDP into space technologies; specifically, a space elevator, or truly re-usable space-plane, that can bring the cost of getting material into orbit to a reasonable figure. Once we do that, then we can let the private enterprises have at it.

      May 22, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  11. deltaheavy

    Raymond.... You are a fool...

    May 18, 2011 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
  12. Scottish Mamal

    My ass is light years ahead of time

    May 18, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  13. Madtown

    Sweet, can we send $arah Palin to be president of a new colony on this planet?

    May 18, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  14. bailoutsos

    Would the rain be purple?

    May 18, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • B-rock

      Only if you can receive the OWN network on the tele.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Raptor

    Trying to imagine life on a world like that. Makes you wonder if they would develop two different systems for the light and the dark side. Fun brain teaser

    May 18, 2011 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
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