Distant quasar is drenched in water

Astronomers have discovered the biggest reservoir of water in the universe – with 140 trillion times as much as in all the world’s oceans. The cloud of vapour surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years from Earth.

An artist's impression of the quasar
An artist's impression of the quasar (NASA/ESA)

That means we’re looking back to see it as it was 12 billion years ago and only 1.6 billion years after the universe was formed in the Big Bang.

The water was discovered using a spectrograph called Z-Spec on the 10-meter telescope at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This instrument views the cosmos in non-visible light, in the part of the spectrum that lies between infrared and microwave wavelengths.

Matt Bradford, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, in California, said: “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times. In this case, the water measurement shows that the gas is under the influence of the growing black hole, bathed in both infrared and X-ray radiation.”

The astronomers were studying a quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbours a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the Sun and producing as much energy as a thousand trillion Suns.

There is at least 4,000 times more gaseous water around the quasar than is found in the Milky Way, partly because most of the water in our own galaxy is in the form of ice.

Professor Jason Glenn, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was also in the discovery team, said: “Breakthroughs are coming fast in millimeter and submillimeter technology, enabling us to study ancient galaxies caught in the act of forming stars and supermassive black holes.

“The excellent sensitivity of Z-Spec and similar technology will allow astronomers to continue to make important and surprising findings related to distant celestial objects in the early universe, with implications for how our own Milky Way galaxy formed.”

Confirmation for the discovery came in images obtained by a network of radio dishes called the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy, or CARMA, in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

Last month, astronomers announced the discovery of the furthest known quasar, 13 billion light years away.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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