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JPL and Caltech Astronomers Discover Ancient Water Reservoir in Distant Universe

The teams detected massive body of water vapor surrounding a quasar 12 billion light-years from Earth

Published on Monday, July 8, 2024 | 6:38 am

Astronomers from Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have detected an enormous reservoir of water vapor in deep space, dating back approximately 12 billion years. This discovery marks the largest and most distant body of water ever observed in the universe.

Two separate teams of researchers made this groundbreaking finding.

One team from Jet Propulsion Laboratory used a 33-foot telescope near Mauna Kea’s summit in Hawaii for initial observations, followed by radio dishes in California’s Inyo Mountains.

A second team, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the Institute’s Submillimeter Observatory, employed the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to confirm and further analyze the discovery.

The water vapor surrounds a quasar known as APM 08279+5255, located more than 12 billion light-years away from Earth. Quasars are extremely luminous and energetic objects powered by supermassive black holes at galaxy centers.

“The environment around this quasar is very unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water. It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times,” said Matt Bradford of National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The volume of water vapor detected is approximately 140 trillion times that of all Earth’s oceans combined, researchers found.

The quasar harbors a black hole estimated to be 20 billion times more massive than our sun, producing energy equivalent to a thousand trillion suns.

The gas surrounding the quasar, including the water vapor, is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Despite being at minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius), it is five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than typical interstellar matter.

The water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years, according to the research teams.

This finding demonstrates that water was present in the universe much earlier than previously confirmed, providing insights into the chemical composition of the early cosmos.

The discovery supports the theory that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even in its earliest stages. It also offers a unique opportunity to study the environment around supermassive black holes and quasars in the distant universe.

Astronomers hope to conduct further studies to better understand the nature of distant quasars and the prevalence of water in the early cosmos.

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