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Biggest, Oldest Water Mass in Universe Discovered

By Andrés Córdova
Epoch Times Staff
Created: July 23, 2011 Last Updated: July 23, 2011
Related articles: Science » Space & Astronomy
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Artist's illustration of a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. (NASA/ESA)

Artist's illustration of a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. (NASA/ESA)

A cloud of water vapor equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in Earth’s oceans has been found surrounding a massive quasar more than 12 billion light years-away. It is the biggest and oldest water mass ever detected in the universe.

Quasars are the most luminous objects in the universe, deriving their energy from black holes that feed on surrounding matter like gas and dust.

At the core of this quasar, APM 08279+5255, is a black hole 20 billion times the mass of our sun, producing the energy of a thousand trillion suns.

"The environment around this quasar is very unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water," said co-author Matt Bradford at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in a press release.

"It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times."

Astronomer Alberto Bolatto at the University of Maryland said this discovery pushes the detection of water 1 billion years closer to the big bang than any previous findings.

"Because the light we are seeing left this quasar more than 12 billion years ago, we are seeing water that was present only some 1.6 billion years after the beginning of the Universe," Bolatto explained in a press release.

There is enough water vapor to feed the black hole to around six times its current size.

The cloud is hundreds of light-years in size and is 300 trillion times less dense than the Earth’s atmosphere.

Its temperature is -63 degrees Fahrenheit (-53 degrees Celsius), five times hotter and 10 to 100 times more dense than the water masses typically found in the Milky Way.

The astronomers used two instruments to image the water mass. The first one is "Z-Spec" a telescope from the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii that measures light in the millimeter band—electromagnetic radiation between the infrared and microwave wavelengths.

Z-Spec’s coverage is 10 times larger than any other spectrometers of its kind. To confirm their findings, the team used 15 linked radio telescope dishes, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA) in California.

The study was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on July 18.

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