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08th Jul 2024

Body of water that’s 12 billion years old found floating in space

Zoe Hodges

It’s a pretty big pond!

It took two teams of astronomers three years, one volcano and two mountain ranges to discover a 12-billion-year-old body of water floating in space.

It is the largest and furthest reservoir ever detected in the universe.

Observations began back in 2008, when a team, led by Matt Bradford – a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – began using a 33-foot telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, an inactive shield volcano.

They followed up with observations from radio dishes dotted across the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

A second team of astronomers, led by Dariusz Lis – senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory – used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find the water.

The body of water is 140 trillion times all the water in the world’s ocean and sits 12-billion light-years away.

In a press release issued in 2011, Bradford said: “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.”

Prior to this discovery, scientists had never found water vapour present this far back in the universe. Water has been discovered elsewhere in the Milky Way but most of it is frozen.

The water surrounds a large feeding black hole known as a quasar. Quasars are massive celestial objects that emit large amounts of energy. As the quasar eats it releases huge amounts of energy.

Scientists say that in this particular quasar, the water vapour is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years in size. It is effectively ‘bathing’ the gas in X-rays and infrared radiation. In the press release the Jet Propulsion Laboratory says that ‘the gas is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards’.

“Although the gas is at a chilly minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius) and is 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, it’s still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what’s typical in galaxies like the Milky Way.”

The astronomers are continuing to study the quasar and its reservoir.