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Huge Reservoir of Water Discovered in Space 30 Billion Trillion Miles Away

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA

From a Caltech Press Release:

Water really is everywhere. Two teams of astronomers, each led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. Looking from a distance of 30 billion trillion miles away into a quasar—one of the brightest and most violent objects in the cosmos—the researchers have found a mass of water vapor that’s 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.

Because the quasar is so far away, its light has taken 12 billion years to reach Earth. The observations therefore reveal a time when the universe was just 1.6 billion years old. “The environment around this quasar is unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water,” says Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and a visiting associate at Caltech. “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.” Bradford leads one of two international teams of astronomers that have described their quasar findings in separate papers that have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Read Bradford & team’s paper here.

A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that is steadily consuming a surrounding disk of gas and dust; as it eats, the quasar spews out huge amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

Since astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early universe, the discovery of water is not itself a surprise, Bradford says. There’s water vapor in the Milky Way, although the total amount is 4,000 times less massive than in the quasar, as most of the Milky Way’s water is frozen in the form of ice.

Nevertheless, water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of the quasar. In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years (a light-year is about six trillion miles), and its presence indicates that the gas is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is a chilly –53 degrees Celsius (–63 degrees Fahrenheit) 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.

The water vapor is just one of many kinds of gas that surround the quasar, and its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas in both X-rays and infrared radiation. The interaction between the radiation and water vapor reveals properties of the gas and how the quasar influences it. For example, analyzing the water vapor shows how the radiation heats the rest of the gas. Furthermore, measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest that there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it grows to about six times its size. Whether this will happen is not clear, the astronomers say, since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or may be ejected from the quasar.

Bradford’s team made their observations starting in 2008, using an instrument called Z-Spec at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO), a 10-meter telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Z-Spec is an extremely sensitive spectrograph, requiring temperatures cooled to within 0.06 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. The instrument measures light in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum called the millimeter band, which lies between infrared and microwave wavelengths. The researchers’ discovery of water was possible only because Z-Spec’s spectral coverage is 10 times larger than that of previous spectrometers operating at these wavelengths. The astronomers made follow-up observations with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

This discovery highlights the benefits of observing in the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths, the astronomers say. The field has developed rapidly over the last two to three decades, and to reach the full potential of this line of research, the astronomers—including the study authors—are now designing CCAT, a 25-meter telescope to be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile. CCAT will allow astronomers to discover some of the earliest galaxies in the universe. By measuring the presence of water and other important trace gases, astronomers can study the composition of these primordial galaxies.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the CSO, used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water. In 2010, Lis’s team was looking for traces of hydrogen fluoride in the spectrum of APM 08279+5255, but serendipitously detected a signal in the quasar’s spectrum that indicated the presence of water. The signal was at a frequency corresponding to radiation that is emitted when water transitions from a higher energy state to a lower one. While Lis’s team found just one signal at a single frequency, the wide bandwidth of Z-Spec enabled Bradford and his colleagues to discover water emission at many frequencies. These multiple water transitions allowed Bradford’s team to determine the physical characteristics of the quasar’s gas and the water’s mass.

Read Lis & team’s paper here.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Self-made millionaire July 22, 2011, 8:03 PM

    -53 degrees? Could this gas get compressed even more, until it becomes so hot and dense that it becomes a liquid? Is liquid water in space possible? If yes, could fish be swimming in it? :)

    • Torbjörn Larsson July 23, 2011, 2:02 AM

      Certainly sufficient gravity makes ice bodies and water on planets.

      But see the many orders of magnitude in the article between what is seen and such conditions. I don’t think you will see large volumes even close to or in such extreme objects as black holes where this will happen.

      Fish will take to water like fish take to water, I assume!? :P

      • WaxyMary July 26, 2011, 2:28 PM

        @SMM & TL,

        The ratio of dissolved gases within water to the need of the fish with gill structures for removing and exchanging those gases might suffer from the lack of gases due to low pressure boil off.

        But good luck at the fishin’ hole guys, and remember, gut and clean the fish there and NOT here.

        Mary

  • Bob Myers July 22, 2011, 9:39 PM

    How can it be 30 billion trillion miles away (~5 billion light-years) and yet the light has taken 12 billion years to get here?

    • Torbjörn Larsson July 23, 2011, 1:54 AM

      Good catch; I read this twice and didn’t catch it.

      I’m lazy today and put in z ~ 4 (from the paper) in a web redshift calculator to get a lookback time of ~ 5 Gy and distance of ~ 3300 Mpc = ~ 11 Gly unless I am mistaken. Seems to me someone at Caltech misplaced the two numbers.

    • Alex Epstein July 23, 2011, 12:54 PM

      Because the universe is expanding.

  • Anonymous July 22, 2011, 11:10 PM

    You might like to correct the spelling of “resevoir” to “reservoir”.

  • Anonymous July 23, 2011, 1:31 PM

    If you could get out there to collect some of it, I’d bet bottled “Quasar Water” would sell like hotcakes!

    • Antriksh Yadav July 23, 2011, 3:41 PM

      Except that it will be the most expensive ‘commodity’ on this planet.

  • Anonymous July 23, 2011, 5:33 PM

    Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink – Coleridge – Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

  • Anonymous July 23, 2011, 5:33 PM

    Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink – Coleridge – Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

  • Adam Chambers July 23, 2011, 6:12 PM

    are you sure It is not a reflection of our solar system like a dessert. warning us of a future solar flare light bouncing off us. sun so hot now allowing us to see it like an illusion just like we thought the earth was flat when it wasn’t I just think it might be a warning

    • Anonymous July 25, 2011, 12:10 PM

      Do you mean, like a desert mirage? Or, like it would be a yummy after-dinner treat? Because that’s a confusing concept.

    • WaNg san July 26, 2011, 12:48 PM

      100% sure it is not a reflection of our solar system….or even our galaxy for that matter. My brain kinda hurts now though :(

  • Anonymous July 24, 2011, 10:41 PM

    This shthe raeould put and end to the difficutty of finding life in the universe once and for all.

  • Anonymous July 24, 2011, 10:45 PM

    Sorry for the misspelling it read this should put a end to the difficutty of finding life in the universe once and for all.

    • WaxyMary July 26, 2011, 3:15 PM

      @marcosanthonytoledo,

      I understand you to say the existence of water in this large an amount indicates the discovery of life ‘somewhere in the universe’ is a virtual certainty, and that this should end any debate on such an occurrence.

      The article states:
      The water vapor is just one of many kinds of gas that surround the quasar, and its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas(es) in both X-rays and infrared radiation.

      I added the plural (es) since the paper is referring to multiple types of gas and not just the H2O vapor. I3M@L will correct this to the uniform singular but both are correct if my memory of the Chicago Style Manual is accurate. My way conveys a better feel for the article’s take on the complex paper, the abbreviated summary heading of the paper does indicate some additional findings can be had with more exploration of the data set.

      The title of the paper says it all, in fact. “Water as a Molecular Gas Coolant and Radiation Field Probe”.

      The X-Ray intensity might prohibit life within the vast cloud of ever changing snow flakes., but it is the pumping of the vapor to unoccupied space, possibly beyond any dark matter halo for this fairly young galaxy which spells a future for the vapor.

      At some time in that future (our past of course) measured in millions of years, the eventual destination of the vapor and gases will be the accretion disc –even if those become sidetracked for a few billion years as stars and planets. The accretion disc, debris field and such is currently of unknown size but is estimated to be rather large just as the super massive black hole (SMBH) is rather large.

      The artists conception picture heading this article is vividly detailed and for this particular SMBH might be, more than likely, too small by several degrees of magnitude. The dense dust ring around the margin of this depicted galaxy might only mark the accretion discs outer edge, so to speak. The remainder of the galaxy being removed to show the detail if you would. Yes, the accretion disc is thought to be that big.

      Mary

    • WaxyMary July 26, 2011, 3:15 PM

      @marcosanthonytoledo,

      I understand you to say the existence of water in this large an amount indicates the discovery of life ‘somewhere in the universe’ is a virtual certainty, and that this should end any debate on such an occurrence.

      The article states:
      The water vapor is just one of many kinds of gas that surround the quasar, and its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas(es) in both X-rays and infrared radiation.

      I added the plural (es) since the paper is referring to multiple types of gas and not just the H2O vapor. I3M@L will correct this to the uniform singular but both are correct if my memory of the Chicago Style Manual is accurate. My way conveys a better feel for the article’s take on the complex paper, the abbreviated summary heading of the paper does indicate some additional findings can be had with more exploration of the data set.

      The title of the paper says it all, in fact. “Water as a Molecular Gas Coolant and Radiation Field Probe”.

      The X-Ray intensity might prohibit life within the vast cloud of ever changing snow flakes., but it is the pumping of the vapor to unoccupied space, possibly beyond any dark matter halo for this fairly young galaxy which spells a future for the vapor.

      At some time in that future (our past of course) measured in millions of years, the eventual destination of the vapor and gases will be the accretion disc –even if those become sidetracked for a few billion years as stars and planets. The accretion disc, debris field and such is currently of unknown size but is estimated to be rather large just as the super massive black hole (SMBH) is rather large.

      The artists conception picture heading this article is vividly detailed and for this particular SMBH might be, more than likely, too small by several degrees of magnitude. The dense dust ring around the margin of this depicted galaxy might only mark the accretion discs outer edge, so to speak. The remainder of the galaxy being removed to show the detail if you would. Yes, the accretion disc is thought to be that big.

      Mary

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