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Astronomers detect largest, most distant reservoir of water ever found in the universe


July 26, 2011

Artist's concept illustrating a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279 5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor (Image: NASA/ESA)

Artist's concept illustrating a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279 5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor (Image: NASA/ESA)

Two international teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The researchers found the huge mass of water feeding a black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away. The mass of water vapor is at least 140 trillion times that of all the water in the world's oceans combined and 100,000 times more massive than the sun.

Quasars are among the most luminous, powerful, and energetic objects known in the universe. They are powered by an enormous black hole that steadily consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust, spewing out huge amounts of energy as it eats. The particular quasar under investigation, which bears the catchy name of APM 08279+5255, harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

Although astronomers had expected water vapor to be present even in the early, distant universe, they had not detected it this far away before. They point out that there is water vapor in the Milky Way, but because most of the Milky Way's water is frozen in ice, the total amount of water vapor is 4,000 times less than in the quasar.

The astronomers say that water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of a quasar. In this case, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years in size. Its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas in X-rays and infrared radiation, and that the gas is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is at a chilly minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius) and is 300 trillion times less dense than Earth's atmosphere, it's still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what's typical in galaxies like the Milky Way.

Measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it grows to about six times its size. However, it's unclear whether this will happen or not as some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or might be ejected from the quasar.

The discovery was made by two international teams of astronomers, each led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), that have each described their quasar findings in separate papers that have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times," said Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and a visiting associate at Caltech, who led one of the teams.

Bradford's team started making their observations in 2008 using an instrument called "Z-Spec" at Caltech's Submillimeter Observatory, a 33-foot (10-meter) telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Follow-up observations were made with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

The second team was led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. This group used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water.

In 2010, Lis's team serendipitously detected water in APM 8279+5255, observing one spectral signature. Bradford's team was able to get more information about the water, including its enormous mass, because they detected several spectral signatures of the water.

Source: NASA

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

nice photo, pretty good from 12 billion light years away. BTW, is this real, can astronomers take clear photos like this from that distance?

On another subject, water: that means there might have been life there at one time

Waiel Jibrail

First words says Artist!

Christopher Bedford

Ed Note: Image is an \"Artist\'s concept illustration\" as per caption


\"the total amount of water vapor is 4,000 times less than in the quasar.\"

\"4000 times less\" implies there is negative water. what they should say is that there is 1/4000th the amount of water vapor.

Jacob Shepley

If this is 12 billion lightyears away, then seeing this now, we are looking 12 billion years into the past. This quasar has probably condensed into a star by now, and the water vapour may well have frozen into ice-asteroids and comets... lets invent the warp engine already so we can go see what it looks like now!


This article is in the present tense; you forgot to mention that everything they\'re detecting happened 12 billion years ago (because of its distance from us) & although in cosmic terms that\'s actually pretty long (big bang=13.7bil.yrs ago) but then again supermassive black holes (& thus by default, also galaxies...i only say supermassive because it said the water is 100,000x the mass of the sun) can have lifespans of up to billions of years, so for all we know it\'s still around. The lady they interviewed did mention how it tells us that water is pervasive in the universe even long ago, but they don\'t ever really elaborate on what she meant by that & it might make more sense if it were in past tense. But in any case, I\'m not trying to bash the article or anything...it\'s a good article. It\'s otherwise quite well-written/interesting to read.

BTW I also realize I\'m not the first person commenting to mention this, I just think it\'s a relatively important detail. I guess all I\'m sayin\' is that the point should be that water (large amounts) existed, far away, billions of years ago & in the very young universe; not just that water exists in a far away galaxy. This means that intelligent life (as much so as us & more...much more, & everything in between) has almost certainly evolved many, many times over throughout all of time...as we currently understand it.

Cam Krout

So comforting. Thirsty in Sahara or Sahel, you just look up and voila, there it is, the largest reservoir of water ever, hanging with serenity in the sky.

There it WAS, 12 billion years ago, to stay correct.

so o comforting

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