Key Takeaways:

  1. Astronomers have discovered an enormous reservoir of water in the universe, equivalent to 140 trillion times the Earth’s oceans.
  2. This water is located around a distant quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away, making it the farthest detection of water vapor in the universe.
  3. The quasar, APM 08279+5255, is powered by a massive black hole and emits energy equal to a thousand trillion suns.
  4. The presence of water vapor provides essential insights into the nature of the quasar, indicating it emits X-rays and infrared radiation, with unusually warm and dense gas.
  5. There is enough gas to feed the black hole and make it six times larger, but whether this will happen or if the gas will condense into stars remains uncertain.
  6. Astronomers used specialized instruments, like Z-Spec and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer, for these groundbreaking observations.

Two separate teams of astronomers have made a groundbreaking discovery that has expanded our understanding of the universe’s vastness and the ubiquity of water within it. Their research has unveiled the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected. This immense reservoir, equivalent to an astonishing 140 trillion times the total water content of Earth’s oceans, encircles a colossal black hole known as a quasar, located more than 12 billion light-years away from our planet.

A quasar is a celestial entity powered by a massive black hole that continuously consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust. As it feeds, the quasar emits enormous amounts of energy, making it an extraordinary phenomenon in the universe. Both groups of astronomers focused their studies on a specific quasar, APM 08279+5255, which hosts a black hole a staggering 20 billion times more massive than our sun and generates as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

The presence of water vapor in this distant corner of the universe was expected by astronomers, albeit not previously detected at such a tremendous distance. While water vapor exists within our Milky Way galaxy, the quantity found in APM 08279+5255 far exceeds that of our entire galaxy. Most of the Milky Way’s water exists in frozen form, unlike the water vapor enveloping the quasar.

Water vapor serves as a critical trace gas that offers valuable insights into the nature of the quasar. In this particular quasar, the water vapor is dispersed around the black hole, forming a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years. This region’s existence indicates that the quasar bathes the surrounding gas in intense X-rays and infrared radiation, resulting in the gas being exceptionally warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is frigid at minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit and 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, it is still notably hotter and denser than what is typically observed in galaxies like the Milky Way.

Measurements of the water vapor and other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest that there is sufficient gas to sustain the black hole’s growth to about six times its current size. However, the ultimate fate of this gas remains uncertain, as it may either condense into stars or be ejected from the quasar.

The observations leading to this remarkable discovery began in 2008 when Bradford’s team employed the “Z-Spec” instrument at the California Institute of Technology’s Submillimeter Observatory, a 33-foot telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Subsequent observations were conducted using the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, utilized the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to identify water in APM 08279+5255, with their initial observation being serendipitous. Bradford’s team, however, managed to obtain more comprehensive data regarding the water, including its astounding mass, by detecting several spectral signatures of the water.

This discovery not only underscores the omnipresence of water throughout the cosmos but also highlights the remarkable capabilities of modern astronomical instruments and the collaborative efforts of scientists across the globe.

Read full article on NASA

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