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Water in Space? Astronomers find the largest reservoir outside our planet

A group of astronomers found a huge reservoir of water surrounding a black hole more than 12 billion light-years away.

A team of astronomers has discovered the largest reservoir of water in the universe, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in Earth’s ocean. It surrounds a black hole more than 12 billion light-years away.

Astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early, distant Universe, but they did not expect it to be so far away. There is water vapor in the Milky Way, although the amount is 4,000 times less than the quasar because most of the water in the Milky Way is frozen.

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Water in space

This research is being partially funded by NASA and appears in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, where scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Matt Bradford has said that “the environment surrounding this quasar is very unique in that it produces this huge mass of water. It’s another demonstration that water is ubiquitous throughout the Universe, even in the earliest epochs.”

This quasar is fed by a black hole that consumes a disk of gas and dust surrounding it. As it eats, it spits out large amounts of energy. Astronomers studied the quasar known as APM 08279+5255, which houses a black hole that produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

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In this quasar, water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years. Its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas with X-rays and infrared radiation, and the gas is similarly warm and dense by astronomical standards, despite being less than 53 degrees Celsius and 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, it is still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what is common in the Milky Way.

Measurements of water vapor 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 yet clear since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or be ejected from the quasar.

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Bradford’s team has been making observations since 2008, using the Z-Spec instrument at the California Institute of Technology’s Submillimeter Observatory, a 10-meter telescope located near the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Follow-up observations were made with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of parabolic antennas located in the Inyo Mountains of southern California.

A second research group led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of Caltech’s Submillimeter Observatory, used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water. In 2010, Lis’s team happened to detect water in APM 8279+5255 by observing a spectral signature. Bradford’s team was able to obtain more information about the water, including its enormous mass, because they detected several spectral shapes of the water.

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Story originally published in Ecoosfera

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