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. grace

    gotta wonder if the aliens that evolved on the light side of the planet fight wars with whatever creatures evolved on the dark side...

    May 21, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wellokfine

      They will NEVER turn to the dark side!

      May 21, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. MN Tom

    if france says so it isn't true

    May 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. John

    I wonder if Gliese 581d is also only 6000 years old? Even jokingly saying that makes me cringe.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mell


    Satan doesn't have to do very much to malign God's word..

    you probably forgot God Created Satan – God created Good and evil – it doesnt mean he does evil, Free will is choices – you don't even have freewill. You have one choice "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve"

    May 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Light year = miles per second

    I got lost here, are we commenting on maybe life on a distant planet or religion?
    For those discussing religion you are on the wrong page. Stay on the subject or go to church and discuss religion.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mseikeh

    I don't mean to sound silly, but how does this qualify as science and not pure rubish obainted by silly numerical simulaitons based on guesses you could have accepted or just refused in the same way two drunken guys sitting in a bar and speculating about the US economy tendencies.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • wzrd1

      Because, today, we use those new fangled computer thingies, with different models to simulate different environmental conditions. Why, they even have those new fangled computer program model thingies that can predict the weather here on Earth!
      But, why do all that science, right? Maybe we'd do better believing that the Earth is flat, rather than try to learn new fangled things that may someday prove useful.

      May 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      "I don't mean to sound silly,". You didn't make it. Take a look at the incredible discoveries made by modern astronomy using the latest in equipment. Your analogy is nonsensical.

      May 21, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ja370

      Lets not forget that is was a mathematical scientific "guess"(the common word is theory) that allowed us to split the atom and create a means to effectively destroy ourselves.

      May 22, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Well, as a physics major, who has done some of your 'silly numerical simulations' concerning astronomy in particular, and sat in a bar and argued, you'd be surprised how much easier it'd be to settle questions about US economic policy debates drunk off your @ss than determining even minor details in astronomy. Those 'silly numerical simulations' are a bit more sophisticated than you give them credit for, we take great care to be sure we analysed data properly.
      I can't tell you how many nights I was up till 4am working on some code trying to actually get data to come in some recognisable format. I spent a week with a problem for a sub-program a TA had so graciously given me (I really can't thank him enough for that code incidentally) just because my damn laptop X window didn't communicate properly with the school's servers, so even with properly working code I got crazy and insane results. When people analyse astronomic data, we're not just running silly programs, we design those programs ourselves, and we work damn hard to get them to work properly. I doubt you've ever looked at a single piece of astronomical data in your life, but you seem so happy to comment on the merit of other's work without so much of an inkling of the effort that goes into making these discoveries.

      My project? It was a tiny footnote, to determine that 47 Tuc probably has multiple stellar populations of white dwarfs, and that was three months of late nights to try to do. A project like this is even more substantial, and you have the gall to compare it to some drunken guys arguing? You are an bane of humanity.

      May 22, 2011 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  7. Sfe

    There are plenty of candidates that may support life, complex or otherwise. That is useless information if we don't figure out how to get to these planets in a reasonable time. 10+ light years is very far, I want to be alive when we finally conquer that distance.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • chuckmartel

      Even with an incredible explosion in space travel technology, we will all be long gone by then. For example, at one half the speed of light it would take 40 years to get there and another 40 to get back, if they came back. Round trip communication time with anyone there would be about 40 years as well.

      May 21, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kyle

    @ skywalker, I am in a similar view point to you in that I am one of the few that understands that God can not be proven or disproven, however, I am on the other side of the argument. I consider myself a non believer with the understanding that I could be wrong. However, as some one that has grown up in the scientific community I understand that our ability to innovate and be able to create instruments that will be able to detect the smallest things in the smallest places in the universe will be able to detect somewhere in the distant future, our knowledge will advance so much in the next 2000 that we will be able to find life somewhere else. there are more stars in the known universe than grains of sand on this earth. to say that small life doesn't exist somewhere else is as ignorant as saying the universe rotates around our earth. we have not been able to develop a telescope or other sensors(hubble telescope cant even see the lunar rover on the moon... im not in any way saying we didnt go to the moon, cuz we did) to detect life in other places yet. and lets say there was some form of basic life in a far off place, you can not deny that evolution is happening evolution is harder to disprove than GOD is to prove. what if his ultimate vision was a humanoid version of our intelligence which kept destroying ourselves because we were so hostile. maybe there i a utopian planet somewhere else where every one lives in peace, you have to hope that the all wise GOD didnt F- up on our society this bad. to impune the rights of other people based on an interpretation of a people put together 200 years after Jesus' death just because of your disgust for 2 people of the same se x getting married or doing whatever happens in their private time is awful, just because you may not like it. there are hom o se xual members of other animal species in nature too so argument against them is void. I agree with the bible when it says to love and cherish and forgive and all that but to take the bible on a whole as literal is wrong. accept the fact that we dont know everything that there is to know, and that will probably remain that way. if the re is a GOD judgment will come, live your life now and dont impose on others.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • DutchYankee

      Hi Kyle, when you say you can not deny evolution is happening... all we can not deny is that change over time is happening. That's obvious. However, we can not observe (required for it to be 'scientific') that this change can turn one species into another... all we see is things change over time... mostly falling apart... no matter how many billions of years the universe has or has not been around.. you can't make this kind of loss of information up by volume 🙂

      Change happening? Absolutely... but unfortunately in the wrong direction...

      May 22, 2011 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Dean

      @DutchYankee – you are incorrect. We *do* see evolution happening. It may be on a very small scale (single celled organisms), but we *can* see it. In addition, we can 'see' it in the fossil records. There are gaps, and there are unanswered questions, to be sure... but the evidence is so overwhelming that only those who are willfully ignorant can deny it.

      May 22, 2011 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      DutchYankee, despite you being wrong on multiple levels, and despite we have seen things like the Italian Wall Lizards develop entirely new cecal valves, for starters, I'm curious, would you then assert 'evolution is right up to a point, but god/designer/whatever must have done it before then'? If so, at what point would you track back up evolutionary lineages to find the 'kind', the place where evolution stopped happening and some creator put life there instead?
      For example, the Italian Wall Lizard, you'd of course concede that evolution is responsible for the new cecal valves in the new species, but would you then say that this 'god', 'creator', whatever would have created each of the twenty something different Wall Lizard genus independently? Or did Wall Lizards all evolve from "true lizards" and "true lizards" were created, and evolution took place after? Or what about 'lizards' in general, did god create a couple lizards and 'true lizards' evolved from that? At what point would you track it back to say "evolution was right... up until here"? At what point would you find the separate 'kinds' that were created by which evolution took place afterwards?

      May 22, 2011 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • DutchYankee

      @Andrew A little fact checking goes a long way Andrew. These lizards merely started using a feature that their Designer had cleverly provided for them already; namely, the original lizards DID have the ability to digest plant material; they just happened to prefer protein for 95% of their diet. Which I can understand, being a meat lover myself.

      The 'new' muscular valve they found between the small and large intestine is simply an enlargement of muscles ALREADY PRESENT (I am not shouting, just emphasizing 😉 ) in the gut wall. In other words, far from being a truly new feature, the shift in available food allowed lizards with larger muschels at the juncture to be more succesfull at feeding and reproducing.

      Just because I don't like to swim, does not mean my Creator has not designed me to get out of a fixt in case I happen to stumble into a pond (ok, granted, this comment opens the door for you to yell "Oversimplifyer!!").

      Once again, this so-called “evolution” is nothing more than natural selection acting on pre-existing genetic information, helping a population adapt to its surroundings. Which is perfectly in line with the biblical account of creation and a Creator who has designed life to be robust. And again, we have not observed a species "evolving" into a completely different species. All we find is, species that appeared perfectly designed from the get go, turning on or off features that they already had. Nothing new to see here folks... moving right along...

      May 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ian

    its not hard to pick out the liberals, they are the ones who always find an excuse to hate Christians
    so much for that "tolerant" Bullspit

    May 21, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kyle

      im a liberal, read my post above this one. dont look dumb because you think you look cool doing it

      May 21, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • brandon

      Calling yourself a liberal and being proud of it is like saying; "Hey, look at me! I'm an idiot!"

      May 21, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      It's the Christians who spout hatred towards gays and doctors performing legal operations. Grow up.

      May 22, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  10. Empty_Fifth

    dude its that friggin big and closer than the moon!?

    May 21, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. r4bbit

    That would be an unusual planet to live on half dark half light constantly.I just wish we had the means to travel in space to anywhere we wanted in very little time.Would be cool seeing all the things the universe has in it.I`d love to see the edge of the universe.That would be wicked watching it expand against infinity. 😎

    May 21, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Anakin

    Im christian by birth atleast. I hope to see the day where we start to colonize something like avatar or something that'd be so awesome! Keep it up NASA

    May 21, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lastavius

      Sir, you should have learned in Christianity 101 that you cannot be "born" Christian! Faith in Jesus is a choice! You can't be born into the faith and expect by simple heredity to gain entry into heaven! My mother could go to heaven and my father along with all syblings and yet by not making my call and election sure...I could miss out on eternal life.

      May 21, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. chuckmartel

    Why all the talk about religion, scripture etc in these posts? This is an article about a red dwarf system with a possible habitable planet. There is way too much religion in this country. Dark age creepy.

    May 21, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Robert Chretien

    You people are so off-topic! Go back to school! Elementary school, that is!

    May 21, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Louis B

    Gliese? This is news from last year!

    May 21, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
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