Most distant water in universe found

Scientists have discovered the most remote water ever – in a galaxy more than 11 billion light-years away from Earth. The tell-tale signature of water molecules was detected more than three-quarters the way across the universe.

the signature of water over the magnified galaxyAstronomers were looking back in time to record it because they are seeing the galaxy as it was 11 billion years ago – around three billion years after the Big Bang.

The find breaks the previous record for the most distant water which was found in another galaxy “only” seven billion light-years away.

Teams from the USA and Germany turned powerful radio telescopes onto the soggy galaxy, dubbed MG J0414+0534. It has a supermassive black hole at its centre.

The astronomers got help from nature to make their major discovery, which is reported in the science journal Nature this week.

The gravitational pull of another galaxy, nearly 8 billion light-years away and directly between us and the more distant galaxy, acted like a giant lens. This magnified the brightness of the remote galaxy allowing the water to be detected.

It was first spotted using a 100-metre wide radio telscope at Effelsberg, Germany, before follow-up observations were made with a more powerful group of telescopes, the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

Astronomer Violette Impellizzeri, of the Max-Planck Institute in Bonn, Germany, said: “We were only able to discover this distant water with the help of the gravitational lens. This cosmic telescope reduced the amount of time needed to detect the water by a factor of about 1,000.”

The water molecules were found to be acting as “masers” by amplifying natural radio wave signals being broadcast from the galaxy into space.

The astronomers’ discovery indicates that such giant water masers were more common in the early universe than they are today. They are seeing the distant galaxy as it was when the universe was roughly one-sixth of its current age.

Closer to home, water has been detected in the atmosphere of planets orbiting other stars in our own galaxy.

Picture: The spectrum that revealed radio emission from water masers in the distant quasar MG J0414+0534. The background shows an infrared image of the quasar, made with the Hubble Space Telescope. The quasar appears broken up into four components by a foreground galaxy acting as a gravitational lens. The inset with the galaxy M87 shows how the quasar might be seen from nearby. (Credit: Milde Science Communication/HST/CFHT/J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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