Scientists Discover The Oldest, Largest Body Of Water In Existence—In Space

Around a black hole 12 billion light years away, there's an almost unimaginable vapor cloud of water—enough to supply an entire planet's worth of water for every person on earth, 20,000 times over.

quasar

Scientists have found the biggest and oldest reservoir of water ever—so large and so old, it’s almost impossible to describe.

The water is out in space, a place we used to think of as desolate and desert dry, but it's turning out to be pretty lush.

Researchers found a lake of water so large that it could provide each person on Earth an entire planet’s worth of water—20,000 times over. Yes, so much water out there in space that it could supply each one of us all the water on Earth—Niagara Falls, the Pacific Ocean, the polar ice caps, the puddle in the bottom of the canoe you forgot to flip over—20,000 times over.

The water is in a cloud around a huge black hole that is in the process of sucking in matter and spraying out energy (such an active black hole is called a quasar), and the waves of energy the black hole releases make water by literally knocking hydrogen and oxygen atoms together.

The official NASA news release describes the amount of water as "140 trillion times all the water in the world’s oceans," which isn’t particularly helpful, except if you think about it like this.

That one cloud of newly discovered space water vapor could supply 140 trillion planets that are just as wet as Earth is.

Mind you, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has about 400 billion stars, so if every one of those stars has 10 planets, each as wet as Earth, that’s only 4 trillion planets worth of water.

The new cloud of water is enough to supply 28 galaxies with water.

Truly, that is one swampy patch of intergalactic space.

Equally stunning is the age of the water factory. The two teams of astrophysicists that found the quasar were looking out in space a distance of 12 billion light years. That means they were also looking back in time 12 billion years, to when the universe itself was just 1.6 billion years old. They were watching water being formed at the very start of the known universe, which is to say, water was one of the first substances formed, created in galactic volumes from the earliest time. Given water’s creative power to shape geology, climate and biology, that’s dramatic.

"It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times," says Matt Bradford, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and leader of one of the teams that made the discovery. (The journal article reporting the discovery is titled, without drama, "The Water Vapor Spectrum of APM 08279+5255: X-Ray Heating and Infrared Pumping over Hundreds of Parsecs.")

It is not as if you’d have to wear foul-weather gear if you could visit this place in space, however. The distances are as mind-bogglingly large as the amount of water being created, so the water vapor is the finest mist—300 trillion times less dense than the air in a typical room.

And it’s not as if this intergalactic water can be of any use to us here on Earth, of course, at least not in the immediate sense. Indeed, the discovery comes as a devastating drought across eastern Africa is endangering the lives of 10 million people in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. NASA’s water discovery should be a reminder that if we have the sophistication to discover galaxies full of water 12 billion light years away, we should be able to save people just an ocean away from drought-induced starvation.

The NASA announcement is also a reminder how quickly our understanding of the universe is evolving and how much capacity for surprise nature still has for us. There’s water on Mars, there’s water jetting hundreds of miles into space from Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, there are icebergs of water hidden in the polar craters of our own Moon. And now it turns out that a single quasar has the ability to manufacture galaxies full of water.

But it was only 40 years ago, in 1969, that scientists first confirmed that water existed anywhere besides Earth.

Read the latest installment of this series: Americans Guzzling More Bottled Water Than Ever"

Charles Fishman is the author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, published by Free Press / Simon & Schuster. © 2011, Charles Fishman.

Read more from The Big Thirst on FastCompany.com

[Artist rendering of water vapor circling quasar: NASA]


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117 Comments

  • Ravel Patel

    To the author of this article: you're nuts. Or, you're telling us stories, like fables, or fairy tales, in which case you're not nuts, but a storyteller.

  • Ravel Patel

    The Sun is what makes our water, for example; and in space it would be first-order or second-order stars. That's science; "black holes" is Walt Disney. Can you understand what I'm saying alright?

  • chis

    if it is so cold in deep space, how is it that the water can exist without freezing

    chris

  • Dude

    A. I think when they say water they mean frozen water its still the same thing.
    or

    B. If somehow the water is liquid it must because of the Gas surrounding it or the quasar heating up the gas to which heats up the water. but I think I'll go with A

  • Sal King

    If the water is 12 billion light years away that means it was there 12 billion years ago. Does not mean it's there now.

  • June Sarahina

    Wrong. Light Year is not equal to Earth Year. It's the measurement using the speed of light.

  • Tien Soon

    June, you are right it is a measurement using the speed of light. However, I think you are confused. Sal King is not entirely wrong too.

    The time taken by light to travel 12 billion light years is equivalent to the time for 12 billion earth years to pass. So if i'm seeing and observing light from the quasar today, I am observing how it was like 12 billion years ago. This is because light entering my eye now had taken 12 billion years to travel to me.

    So yes indeed, if I see water at the quasar on Earth today, it means the water was there 12 billion year ago.

  • Ravel Patel

    Wrong. The distance measure stated is dubious, and the age stated is almost certainly wrong.

  • Guess

    "And God said: Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters: and let it divide the waters from the waters. (7) And God made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were ABOVE THE FIRMAMENT, and it was so." Genesis 1:6-7

    Take note that this passage was written a far distant years before scientist found the waters in space which is above the firmament.

  • Jacob Edwards

    then god wiped my ass. No longer will I go with poopy butt thank you god!!!!

  • Robert Miller

    Funny I was reading genesis chapter one, and I put the question to google was there water about the firmament, and when I read this of course I knew this was another infallible proof that God's word is pure truth.

  • Ravel Patel

    Ok. But you should know that, it is now known that Genesis is not as old as other books in the old testament, it is newer.

  • GP

     Science is only there to prove that there is God. Why do you guys put your faith in scientists who only discover what is already there and not believe in the One who made all these? Like what Guess said, this journal of the creation of the universe (the bible) was written long before this "discovery". Why do you not give credit where it is due?