Key Takeaways

  1. Astronomers discovered an unprecedented water reservoir, 140 trillion times the size of Earth’s oceans, around a distant quasar.
  2. The quasar, APM 08279+5255, hosts a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the Sun, emitting energy equal to a thousand trillion Suns.
  3. This discovery provides crucial insights into the early universe and the distribution of water vapor in space.
  4. The quasar’s intense irradiation of gas with X-rays and infrared radiation makes the surrounding gas unusually warm and dense.
  5. Observations made with sophisticated instruments allowed scientists to gain valuable information about the water and its massive quantity.

Astronomers have made a groundbreaking discovery, uncovering an immense reservoir of water in space that surpasses anything ever detected before. This vast water repository is equivalent to a staggering 140 trillion times the volume of water present in Earth’s oceans. Situated more than 12 billion light-years away, this extraordinary find envelops a colossal quasar—a black hole that engulfs a surrounding disk of gas and dust while emitting an enormous amount of energy.

The quasar in question, known as APM 08279+5255, is truly remarkable, harboring a black hole that is an astounding 20 billion times more massive than the Sun and exuding energy comparable to a thousand trillion Suns. What sets this discovery apart is that it provides crucial insights into the early universe, revealing the presence of water vapor in an environment more than 12 billion years old.

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. NASA/ESA

This remarkable reservoir of water vapor indicates that the quasar is intensely irradiating the gas with X-rays and infrared radiation, rendering the gas unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Despite being frigid at -63° Fahrenheit (-53° Celsius) and over 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, the gas remains 5 times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than the average found in galaxies like our Milky Way.

The discovery is based on the meticulous observations of two groups of astronomers who used advanced instruments like the “Z-Spec” at the California Institute of Technology’s Submillimeter Observatory and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps. These observations shed light on the immense mass of the water and also hinted that there is enough gas to continue feeding the black hole until it grows up to six times its current size. However, the fate of this gas is uncertain, as some of it might condense into stars or be ejected from the quasar.

This groundbreaking revelation not only expands our understanding of the universe’s early stages but also reaffirms the omnipresence of water throughout the cosmos.

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