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. panthersofamerica

    This is so neat! I wonder what Gliese 581d is like. I hope we can figure out more about this planet in the near future!

    May 22, 2011 at 3:43 am | Report abuse |
  2. phoenix05

    Maybe the women on that planet are a little bit more sane.

    May 22, 2011 at 4:47 am | Report abuse |
  3. James Boyd

    II wouldn't go tho that place,. I hear the people are nuts!

    May 22, 2011 at 5:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. MichaelInDC

    "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."

    It would have been good if the article had explained WHY a large planet is a likely to have a carbon dioxide atmosphere.

    May 22, 2011 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. stan

    I can't believe all the comments bashing God. May the Lord bless you.

    May 22, 2011 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Joseph Bleaux

      May you get a brain.

      May 22, 2011 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
    • DonnieH.

      God is the alien and Heaven is our mother planet. Formerly known as Mars. Once we depleted it's resources we were transplanted to the closest viable planet Earth. That's why there is no missing link between man and ape and why it seems man just all of a sudden appeared on Earth....So what do ya think? Sounded pretty reasonable though. Makes more sense than talking snakes and magic apples...

      May 22, 2011 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
    • 5thApe

      Which god? Right.... the one you picked, not any of the other imaginary gods......

      May God Be Less to you too.

      May 22, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  6. Terry Brookman

    Perhaps there is life on other planets and they visit this place, what a embarrassment. Planet of the apes and some people wonder why they don't communicate with us, if they gave us advanced technology we would use it to kill each other. I have seen them up close and we have nothing that can move like that, it will stun you to really see something that is a myth. A sphere that was bigger than the full moon and just as bright moving in zig zag fashion making no noise as it did ninety degree turns faster than your eye could follow then floating like a balloon only to zip off so fast you could not follow it. They observe us I think so that if we stumble across a faster than light drive they can take it away. We are a primitive people by even our own standards who posses the power to destroy life on the planet and we are well on the way to doing just that, what a shame it was a beautiful planet.

    May 22, 2011 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
    • selles morris

      I haven't seen Alien spacecraft but I agree with everything else you said.

      May 22, 2011 at 7:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. levend

    Alot of maybe's here

    May 22, 2011 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
  8. MightyMoo

    Even if it's a bust and we're wrong about what is there I still want to go see.

    May 22, 2011 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. Terry Brookman

    If you want to bring God into this I can only tell you my experience. I was given the assignment to study the Greek Orthodox church and after reading everything I could I did not think it was enough so I asked to attend a service at a Greek church. It was arranged but I was told that I would not understand it because it was in Greek. I was dropped off at the church and sat in the middle of the congregation. Part way through the service I felt compelled to walk to the alter. I tried to fight the compulsion but could not, so I got up and walked to the altar rail with everyone staring at me. A voice said go to the altar so I stepped over the rail feeling the eyes staring. Upon reaching the altar I fell to my knees and the entire world turned black and I thought I was going to die then everything turned blood red like being inside a ruby, it then turned blue white and all I felt was love, love like nothing I have ever felt. When I came out of this the people around me would not look at me, they just crossed then selves and looked away. Two priests came up to me and said your mother is here to pick you up she has been waiting. I thought the words I was going to say and they said without talking, no you cannot stay here you must go with your mother. I then went home and have never thought I was home since. God is love, nothing but love and forgiveness. We are the ones who do not love and will not forgive and anyone who uses the bible to beat up on someone has set themselves higher than God.

    May 22, 2011 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
    • 5thApe

      God is a figment of your over active imagination. Oh.... and *which* god is it? There have been SO many invented over the years its hard to keep track.

      May 22, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. 5thApe

    200 billion stars in the Milky Way. 100 Billion other Galaxies. Kepler finding extra solar planets everywhere, over a 1000 already. Look up; the universe is teaming with life everywhere. Any human who things we are the special creation and all this was done for us is mentally disturbed or has a giant ego complex. When will be all finally get it that:

    "We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special."
    – Stephen Hawking

    PS: When the James Web is launched we will be able to start analyzing atmospheres of these planets found by Kepler using spectroscopy. Then we know for sure. Can't wait. We live in exciting times.

    May 22, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
  11. Aroma

    Scientist : Ocean Cloud Rain, possible on distant planets,
    Since when did this become an issue of religion, you guys are wasting space and my time in reading all your irrelevant rants.

    May 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. indigo

    God is all that Exist. Everything is godly. People act like god and devil but the light is within all of us if only you let it shine. Be you... be love. Choose love over fear. Think for yourself you have all the answers within yourself. There is life everywhere. I have actually seen other beings from other planets. The dark is the control system which controls TV, NASA, return they control us. The system got busted during this past election. Now we are going back. Back home... taking it back... taking government back... freedom back. We are not alone on this planet. Forget all that you know and begin to REMEMBER..... REMEMBER who you truly are. We are all ONE... we are all connected to the planet, nature, animals. Awaken and UNITE. .... It's not just a Revolution it's Evolution. The world is getting better but if you look to the control system they will report the lies ... the dark agenda! Peace & love to all!

    June 7, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
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