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. Gar

    Yeah , now if we'd only had spacecraft which could travel at least at 1/4 of light speed ...

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

      We do have designs for these actually. Its the material sciences that need to get up to speed to make it viable tho. That and anti-matter generation technology needs to get costs down to make this affordable for a government.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scionical

      Nuclear Pulse Propulsion has been a theory kicking around for a while, and has evolved into something called anti-matter catalyzed nuclear propulsion. While we don't have that technology yet, engineers and astrophysicists think it is totally doable. It would take around 50 years to reach Proxima Centauri, however, and that's only a little over four light years away. Still, this is exciting stuff.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy

      Yes some of those devices are ready to deploy now if anyone comes up with the will (and cash) to do it. I was speaking more to next generation antimatter drives such as beamed core drives.

      May 18, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. David

    The real question is – Is there oil there?

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

      Is there life, and is that life ready to learn about Jesus?

      May 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scionical

      We wouldn't make it there bty the 21st anyway. Hope the residents of the Gliese system saved the date.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. TrekkieGT

    "I hope we find intellegent life on another planet during my life time!!!" So do I, because there sure isn't any here.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      How about a joke about a chicken crossing the road? We haven't heard that one a million times either have we?

      May 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      If they are indeed intelligent, they'll kick our @sses out of their solar system as soon as they meet the first missionary or diplomat.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Realist

    Face it everyone, the human race needs to find a way off of this planet and away from our sun. All be it, in the next 6-8 million years, before it burns all its fuel and explodes. By then i am sure mankind will have either destroyed itself or learned to work together for the greater good. I hope for the later.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Ultimately the universe is doomed anyway. In what – another 10-20 billion years 4 things will happen. The expansion will slow and it'll collapse in on itself, the expansion will continue but eventually all the energy will be used up so it'll be a cold dark universe, the expansion will accelerate so fast the universe will tear itself apart, or as many believe god will intervene and the future is looking good!

      May 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Star Shooter are off by about a factor of 10...the suns' energy will be exhausted in about 4-5 Billion years. Good prediction though...

      May 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scionical

      Yeah, you might want to recheck those figures, boss. Or just look directly at the sun. You can see it is totally closer to F than E.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      @Joe – I don't believe you can use up energy, just transform it.

      May 18, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul


      May 18, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  5. IceT

    I, as much as any fan of science fact, love to speculate on what "may" be the composition & atmospheric conditions on the countless planets in our galaxy alone. But I'm waiting for concrete evidence of planetary conditions outside our solar system, until then this may as well be in the belief blog where verifiable evidence isn't needed.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      Ice T, FAIL. What galaxy do you think they are talking about? We HAVE evidence of planetary conditions inside our solar system and use THAT information to compare with planets outside our solar system... last I checked, Gliese 581d is IN our Milky Way Galaxy. Also, do you not think that the scientist who made the discovery also published his findings in a scientific journal to be studied, scrutiniezed and PEER REVIEWED. Until Peer Review completly debunks his claims... I'll leave it to the astronomers and accept his findings until PROVEN otherwise.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'But I'm waiting for concrete evidence of planetary conditions outside our solar system, '
      Erm, you see other stars and have no issue with that but dont accept that that means that there could be other planets out there orbitting those stars? Or that 'gravitational microlensing' shows something is passing in front of those stars?

      May 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • IceT

      The only thing "failed" is your understanding of what I posted. If you attempt to understand the comment you see that it is about verifiable facts ... not possible scenarios based on local conditions. Better yet actually read the article & the numerous times possible & may & model & likely appear in the article.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • IceT

      CedarRapids ... I think my point was missed a bit. I wasn't questioning the existence of other planets I am just waiting for the time when evidence of atmospheric conditions will be available. In other words I am anxious for more information beyond the speculation. I don't question the science, I just want more.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      I think we're on the same side here and may be knit-picking each other. My response to you was in reply to your comment : "I'm waiting for concrete evidence of planetary conditions outside our solar system". I was merely showing that the planet in question is in fact, outside our solar system and In our galaxy. I still stand by my comment about the peer review process. I now see your post about wanting more science... but find it ironic that you would want this article placed in the Belief Blog...

      May 18, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • IceT

      fimeilleur ... agreed. I don't question your point, just your interpretation of my intent. The comment about the belief blog was pure sarcasm. I love to exchange ideas & debate but I avoid writing long comments detailing my stance & that oftern leads to misinterpretation. Thanks for the dialog.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      @ IceT

      Accepted and Peace.

      May 18, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  6. grog

    440,000 years to get there.Thats possible.Got anymore articles.

    May 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bnakka

    So I have to take the scientists words because they seem to know more than I do. So basically because there is paperwork to prove what these scientists claim we have to believe them? How is that different than religion and faith? In ancient times when religion came into play there were experts who could read the scriptures and interpret it for normal folk. The scientists "experts" will look at the data "scriptures" and interpret it for normal follk. What makes anyone believe that scientists won't change the interpretation to fit their agenda?

    May 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • IceT

      The difference is, scientist interpret verifiable data .. not stories.

      May 18, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. Dawkins

      Bnakka, I'm an expert on the prophet Mother Goose. Do you need me to interpret her prophesies for you?

      May 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bnakka

      And you can't fake the "verifiable data", I wonder if evolution really made your brain any smaller. Go tell about this planet to some kid and see if he thinks that is verifiable data or stories.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bnakka

      Like there has never been a scandal with verifiable data was there? Even in this article they are talking about how the scientist who claimed he discovered 581g is still having to prove it even exists. How gullible are people who follow science? I am a math major, because I don't agree with you does not make me stupid, makes you stupid to assume that.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      When a scientist is found to be a fraud, he NEVER works in science again... when he is wrong about something, he corrects his findings and learns from it... When a preacher is found to be a fraud, he opens a new church and claims to have been forgiven by God, when he is wrong about something, he resorts to circular reasoning and repeats the wrong information, hoping to dupe another person into funding his church... learning NOTHING. Now do you see the difference?

      May 18, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'because I don't agree with you does not make me stupid'
      No, the fact that your position is that you do not believe scientists because 'they seem to know more than I do' and think that the default position of scientists is to fake data, for some possible reason as yet unspecified by yourself, is what makes you stupid.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • ejes

      i think a lot of these people are mis-informed. it's verifiable in the same way that most things are verifyable. Because we've seen this these on our planet it's LIKELY that there is a habitable atmoshpere there, you see there's a coelation of data... where this isn't 100% proof, it's more proof than religion offers. This isn't "stories" but a logical progression in presented data.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • IceT

      Bnakka .. If I have to explain the difference between varifiable date and a story then I can't help you any further. Also, did you just seriously use "some kid" to make your point? Sounds like you just helped explain the mindset of religious followers... how fruedian of you.

      May 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. suckbeesnuts

    Just when France thought they couldn't retreat anymore...

    May 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. osama bin hidin

    this story is the reason why I love science and find it fascinating, mind boggling and believe that science, math, and numbers are the only concrete evidence that us humans can believe in and trust to be completely true.. believe in what you want, but to see how small and insignifigant the earth is compared to the vastness of the universe is just so overwhelming. how can people and our world society be so subjected to ancient books that teach division and let these be the basis of our way of life.. If us humans are the only advanced biological lifeforms in the whole of the universe( which I very much doubt), then I think that would be the biggest shame ever. as far as us humans have come in our evolution, and as much technology as weve developed ( which im sure we were taught by aliens i.e., farming, city state societies, etc.. see annunaki, ancient mesopatamia), we are really just simple algae in our ways of thinking and current tech. compared to the other, countless types of intelligent life that exist..

    May 18, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. John

    Wouldn't the mass of that planet have 7x the earth gravity? In other words, we'd be crushed flat, right?

    May 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Graham

    The author is incorrect when he says 581d is 7 times the size of Earth. It is 7 times more massive, but only twice the size!

    May 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. GiGi

    "Science" can't cure the common cold or consistently predict weather patterns accurately, not to mention figure out yet how to get to another planet, so why has something that doesn't have enough of a cache of knowledge about "reality" for us to wipe someone's butt with become the "new" religion, credible enough to tell us anything about the existence of a Creator or anything else they can't see or understand? just sayin.

    May 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      Come GiGi, really? This is too easy... anyone else want a turn? Ok, I'll start...

      'cause your invisible sky daddy has done all this and more, right? I don't see any viable prescriptions in your whole-y text that can cure anything... Try Leviticus 15 for a cure of Leprosy... let me know how that works out for you. Your Buybull can't even get the beginning of life on earth right, let alone the end of days, and you want weather predictions? good luck with that. Your Book of tales says the earth is the center of the universe...

      What it CAN tell us about the existence of a Creator is that their is NO CREDIBLE PROOF OF THE EXISTANCE OF GOD OR GODS let alone one who takes a personnal interest on who wins survivor, or the superbowl, or the 2012 presidential election... Just sayin.

      May 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Religious sects

    fimeilleur made the point. GiGi, is that all you have, the common cold!? Do I need to list the countless number of illnesses science HAS cured or made better?! What has religion cured? To state that science doesn't have enough knowledge about "reality" .. LOL .... advice, don't ever use reality as a basis for your defense of religion against science.. just sayin'

    May 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Perspective

    To those who don't care, you are clearly missing the point. Discovery of this planet is a single step on a very long journey. This is the probably the closest "habitable" exo-world we know of right now. How much longer until we discover the closest "inhabited" exo-world? By the way, don't be surprised if this planet gets imaged sooner than you think.

    May 18, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rick

    And I "MAY" win the lotto tonight.
    And I "MAY" marry Safia Vergara

    I'm guessing I could point ANYWHERE in the sky and say "There might be the ingredients to support life ~there~ "

    This isn't a DISCOVERY ... its pure crappy science... When the researchers have actually visited the planet... THEN its a discovery.

    May 18, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • fimeilleur

      Pure crappy science? Are you sure you know what science is? While I'll conceid that they are using loose language (may) the science is still good because they directly point the telescopes toward a single star and make their observations. based on that , ANY scientist can point his/her telescope towards the same star, make his/her own observations, and by using current knowledge and information, draw his/her own conclusion. This is known as a peer review process and will then either confirm or debunk the first scientist's claim. I think the only crap is located between your ears.

      But yes, you could point ANYWHERE in the sky and say "There might be the ingredients to suport life ~there~" just be prepared to be back your claim with arguments and observations and follow the scientific method or face incredible embarrasment from the scientific community.

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