An international team of astronomers has discovered the largest and oldest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe, swirling around a massive black hole at the heart of a quasar galaxy 12 billion light years from the Earth.
Scientists at the California Institute of Technology led the researchers, who say the distant mass of water vapor is at least 140 trillion times greater than all the water in the Earth's oceans, and 100,000 times more massive than the sun.
The find is significant because it is the first time water has been detected this far away. Because light from the quasar took 12 billion years to reach us, the water reservoir is also the oldest ever discovered. The astronomers say the water vapor they observed was present 1.6 billion years after the formation of the universe in the Big Bang, roughly 13.6 billion years ago. That pushes the existence of water in the universe 1 billion years closer to the Big Bang than any previous find, and it indicates that water has been prevalent in the cosmos almost from the beginning.
The astronomers say there is enough water vapor and other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, feeding the distant black hole that it potentially could grow to six times its already huge size. They made their analysis of the quasar with an extremely sensitive spectrograph at a Caltech observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii.
Water vapor has been detected in many parts of the universe, including our Milky Way, but it is far less dense than the water found spinning around the quasar.
A quasar is one of the brightest and most powerful objects known in the universe.
Its energy, in the form of heat, is generated when matter caught in a black hole’s powerful gravity is violently spun around the outer rim of the phenomenon before it is finally sucked down into the void. As it consumes the gas and dust, the black hole spews out twin streams of energy.
Scientists say the seemingly limitless gravity of a black hole is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can ever escape it. Astronomers believe there is a massive black hole at the core of most galaxies, including a dormant giant in the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy.
A light year is the distance light can travel in one year, which is approximately 10 trillion kilometers.
The new study will appear in an upcoming edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.