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. stanton


    May 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sal Voce

      Not any more than you have already... 🙂

      May 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Capslock

      Given your fondness of CAPSLOCK I'd say you already have mental problems.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • jiri pinkas

      If you brought the easter bunny and the tooth fairy along with you then your mental problems would be minimal.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phil, Ohio

      One of the planets has clouds and rains liquid methane because its so cold.
      Still want to go?

      May 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • American X

      it is 20 "light years" away. Not 20 years. It is actually 300,000 yrs away. read the entire story. You would have to be traveling at the speed of light for 20 yrs to make it there in that amount of time. No such capability exist.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Alphatech

    I think we should be concerned with setting up colonies on Mars before we can begin to consider sending any spacecraft to the stars.

    May 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Edwin

      Actually, the moon is a better first choice - no atmosphere, but MUCH closer. It would be easy to get stuff there. They have found a few deep craters that could protect from radiation, and there seems to be water on the moon, too!

      May 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jon

    Ahhh, buckle this. LUDICRIOUS SPEED NOW!!!!!!!

    May 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee S

      "Its Spaceball one! Theyve gone...Plaid"

      May 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • JThomas2121

      Dark Helmet ... glad to see you're still around.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Miguel

      I see your schwartz is as big as mine!!!

      May 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. matt

    man, i was born in the wrong century.

    May 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. KennyG

    So what good are planets so far away? How can we benefit from their discovery. Too bad: it would be great to PUT life on those planets. Shame to see live possible conditions go to waste. Just because there is conditions favorable to life doesn't mean that life is there. Don't get too excited, most probably, there is none. We don't know where God put life except here on Earth.

    May 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • jiri pinkas

      God did not put us here on earth – get over it...

      May 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • ihaveabridgetosellyou

      How does magnets work? Must be a god thing.

      May 21, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ADiff

    Now if the non-Scientists, activists and advocates, not to mention the entirety of the media can understand that scientifically there's no reason yet to conclude the planet is any more 'real' than Star Trek..... Good luck with that!

    May 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. grace

    How can people not be fascinated by this type of thing? Don't you wonder what this situation that we find ourselves caught in? Don't you wonder what it means to be human? Maybe you haven't evolved as far yet, in which case I wouldn't be so quick to tell the world...

    May 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jake

    Silly creationists. Life DOES just happen. Scientists have put inorganic materials together, the building blocks of life, and created life. Simple single celled life at that, but life nonetheless. Read a science journal once in a while it will do you some good.

    This is fantastic news, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot. In the next ten years we'll have a lot more technology in space, and we'll be able to confirm the existence of life on other planets. Maybe we'll visit them one of these days, wouldn't that be something. But it will be a lot harder to do that with all of you bible thumpers shoving your fairy tales down our throats. Science has given us everything from the technology that you are currently using to read this, to the prescription drugs you take to stay alive, to creating marvels such as the Hubble Space Telescope that have shown us our diminutive place in this universe. What has religion EVER done for mankind? Give you some piece of mind when you die? Give me a break.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • jeff

      Care to post a link to anything that shows how scientists CREATED life from inorganic chemicals? Scientists all over the planet would love to learn about it.....

      May 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • bandit109

      @ Jeff

      Considering that Jake also states that within 10 years we'll have definitive proof that life on other planets exists, I can only assume that Jake is a time traveler from the future.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Jake, ever hear of the Law of Biogenesis? I guess you are just misinformed...the fact that you call all who disagree an idiot is not helping your case. Can we just please conduct ourselves in a civil manner, there is no need for name calling here. Your decision to reject God is your call. All I can tell you is that God loves you, no matter what you do. The issue here is not me vs you, but between you and God. John 14:6 I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me – Jesus

      May 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'All I can tell you is that God loves you, no matter what you do'
      until you die, at which time he will sentence you to an eternity of burning in his mercy and love.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • SciTeach

      It's called the Miller-Urey experiment. Look it up.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stuart

      Really? Single celled life that replicates itself and continues to multiply? Can you please quote the studies that PROVE this statement? And if that is indeed the case then that life did not spontaneously happen, it was 'created' by the scientists who designed the experiment. Hence it did not just happen, it was created.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • ejes

      Here Jeff:
      and the miller urey expeiment too:

      May 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh you :T

      ”Scientists have put inorganic materials together, the building blocks of life, and created life.“

      Scientists engineered a genome from synthetic oligonucleotides and plugged it into an already living Mycoplasma capricolum cell, which then replicated. Modifying a lifeform isn't the same thing as creating life.

      May 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Cedar Rapids, you have a problem with God's justice, take it up with Him. You are accountable for you actions. God made a way for you to be cleansed of your sin, it is now up to you to accept this gift. My faith is not in myself but solely in the blood of Jesus Christ. I claim that there is absolute truth.

      May 18, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      @ Scott,

      "I claim that there is absolute Truth" OK, I'll bite, but first, tell me which of the 13 English language versions of the Bible do you claim to be absolutly true? and then tell me whether God created (GENESIS 1:11-12 and 1:26-27) Trees before Adam; or (GENESIS 2:4-9) Trees after Adam. Remember, this comes from your book of "absolute TRUTH" and I'm prepared to give you more examples of ABSOLUTE TRUTH from you book, even from the "recent time" of Jesus... shall we go on?

      May 18, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TP

    300,000 years. Thank God it's close!!

    May 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy

      This mission would take nowhere near even 1000 years if they choose the engine correctly. The writer is assuming an engine of a similar type to what we use to send a probe to our own deep solar system. This is WRONG!!!

      May 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee S

      Closer than the two neurons that occupy that giant cavity of your skull.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Phat Phan

    If life on another planet is possible, then making a wormhole to travel there could be achieved someday. Or else, there is no other way to visit them. Then, we would become a whole new UFO phenomenon in their planet and its "people" spend days and nights debating about our existence.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. snc735

    We just gotta find the stargate address and dial it up! I volunteer to explore it!

    May 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. zorua dude

    build a robot with an anti-matter powered engine and send it over there. It won't take too long. I wanna see what this planet is like so get to it NASA.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. flippin

    Whether you are a religious person or not, you have to admit this is awesome news. Just because it may prove things we never imagined does not mean it goes againt God. It is exciting and a great oppurtunity to learn. If it is all made by God, how is any of it a bad thing to explore? Science and Religion really do not have to be enemies. I hope we find intellegent life on another planet during my life time!!!

    May 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • misterME

      I hope we can find intelligent life on *this* planet within my lifetime.

      Wouldn't *that* be something...?

      May 18, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      while I commend your efforts to be civil... here's the problem... Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe that we (humans) are God's favorite species (and yes, some sects even refuse to accept that we are animals)... life on another planet would seriously hurt that presumption. So even if your God existed, we would not be considered too special... If God created this planet and all other creation for our benifit... why put that planet so far away from us?

      God keeps getting farther, and farther... he used to live amongst the clouds, but then we flew above them and saw he wasn't there... so we were told he lives in space, so then we sent space crafts, telescopes and probes there and saw that He STILL wasn't there, now they say He lives in another plane of existance... You know what? I think we're tired of being lied to by power hungry charlatons who want nothing more than to control how welive our lives and think our thoughts.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. michaelfury

    May 18, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jake

    The James Webb Space telescope is coming out in 2014. It makes the hubble look like a piece of crap. That's how we'll know if alien life can exist. And I'm writing this on my blackberry, read Io9 or just google the story 'scientists create life' to see for yourself.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
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