An Ocean in Space? Here’s Why This News Is Going Viral Again

Astronomers have made an extraordinary discovery, the largest and most distant reservoir of water ever discovered in the universe, estimated to be around 12 billion years old. Although the find was originally made over a decade ago, it has recently gone viral again, capturing the public’s imagination with its staggering size and implications.

The discovery involved two dedicated teams of astronomers and spanned three years of intensive research. Led by Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the first team began their observations in 2008. Using a 33-foot telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, they made initial observations before moving on to an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

A second team, led by Dariusz Lis, a senior research scientist in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, confirmed the findings using the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps.

This cosmic reservoir is no small body of water; it contains the equivalent of 140 trillion times more water than all the oceans on Earth. The water is more than 12 billion light-years away and surrounds a huge, feeding black hole known as a quasar. Quasars are immense celestial bodies that radiate enormous amounts of energy.

Bradford emphasized the uniqueness of the quasar’s environment, noting that it demonstrates how ubiquitous water is in the universe, even at the earliest epochs. Before this discovery, astronomers had never detected water vapor so far back in the early universe. Although water exists in the Milky Way, most of it is frozen.

The presence of water around the quasar indicates that the quasar is “bathing” the gas in X-rays and infrared radiation, making it unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is a frigid -63 degrees Fahrenheit (-53 degrees Celsius) and 300 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere, it is still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what is typically found in galaxies like the Milky Way.

Astronomers still hope that this discovery will provide more insight into the distant universe through ongoing and future research.

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