Water in the Distant Universe

by Paul Gilster on July 27, 2011

Although I wasn’t able to do any traveling during my recent week off, I did manage to get in some backed up reading, including Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons (2008), the third in his series of novels about the interstellar civilization known as ‘The Culture.’ I’ve developed quite an interest in Banks, whose novels paint a future so finely textured that the memory of it lingers like a flashback to an actual experience, an intuitive, almost mystical sense that I remember having encountered when I first read Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) many years ago (some of Jay Lake’s short stories also have this effect on me). Thanks to the many Centauri Dreams readers who put me on to Banks’ novels.

Among the events in astrophysics that occurred during my absence, I was most struck by the discovery of vast amounts of water surrounding a black hole more than 12 billion light years away, an indication, in the words of JPL’s Matt Bradford, that “water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.” This one triggers a more traditional science fictional sense of wonder in a major way, if for no other reason than the sheer scale of the objects involved. The quasar APM 08279+5255 harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the Sun and, according to this NASA news release, produces an amount of energy equal to a thousand trillion suns. That’s 65,000 times the energy output of the entire Milky Way galaxy.

Image: This artist’s concept illustrates 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. While this figure shows the quasar’s torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view. Credit: NASA/ESA.

The huge black hole, pulling in surrounding gas and dust and spewing out energy, is what powers up the quasar, an object of a class known to contain the most luminous and most energetic objects in the universe. And what the paper on this work tells us is that the cloud of water vapor associated with this object contains the equivalent of 140 trillion times all the water in the world’s oceans. Studying such phenomena tell us much about the early universe, according to co-author Alberto Bolatto:

“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. This discovery pushes the detection of water 1 billion years closer to the Big Bang than any previous find.”

The water vapor is found in a gaseous region that spans hundreds of light years, a cloud whose temperature is minus 53 degrees Celsius, unusually warm in astronomical terms. In fact, the cloud is five times hotter and between 10 and 100 times denser than gases typical to galaxies like the Milky Way. There seems to be enough water vapor — and other molecules, including carbon monoxide — to feed the black hole until it grows to six times its current size, though at this point no one can say how much of the gas will actually wind up being absorbed by it.

While water vapor is present in the Milky Way, it appears in amounts 4000 times less massive than what we find in the quasar, in part because most of the water in our galaxy is frozen into ice. The discovery is owed to work done with the Z-Spec spectrograph at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea, operating in the millimeter wavelengths. And it’s an indication of more to come at these wavelengths, according to Jason Glenn (University of Colorado at Boulder), who is a co-principal investigator on the Z-Spec:

“Breakthroughs are coming fast in millimeter and submillimeter technology, enabling us to study ancient galaxies caught in the act of forming stars and supermassive black holes. The excellent sensitivity of Z-Spec and similar technology will allow astronomers to continue to make important and surprising findings related to distant celestial objects in the early universe, with implications for how our own Milky Way galaxy formed.”

Astronomers including the authors of this study are working on the design for CCAT, a 25-meter telescope destined for Chile’s Atacama desert, which will push yet deeper into the universe at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. We can expect CCAT to continue the study of gas content and water vapor in some of the earliest galaxies in the universe. The current paper is Bradford et al., “The Water Vapor Spectrum of APM 08279+5255: X-Ray Heating and Infrared Pumping over Hundreds of Parsecs,” accepted by Astrophysical Journal Letters (preprint).

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{ 11 comments }

Adam Nix July 27, 2011 at 12:54

Cordwainer Smith was an amazing author. +4 Internets on that reference alone. I hope you enjoyed your time off!

jkittle July 27, 2011 at 14:27

this calls to mind a Larry Niven “smoke ring” on a much more massive scale ( recall the gas torus in his books extended around a neutron star, many orders of magnitude smaller than this object)
Given expected density and temperature fluctuations expected in this torus, I would not be surprised if there were great blobs of liquid water or icy planets in this mix.
Now, given that the inflationary period after the big bang gave very very few large atoms ( above lithium) where did all the Oxygen in this water cloud come from? How may supernovas were required? Where are the core objects left over from these super novas ? I have never been entirely happy with current cosmic models what with the emergence of Dark matter etc. This just points out that the universe is full of wonder not dreamt of in our philosophy
PS the new Earth Trojan object found by WISE is really pretty exciting.. maybe worthy of sending probe?

Tom Baty July 27, 2011 at 14:41

Welcome back!!!!

Paul Gilster July 27, 2011 at 15:56

Thanks for the welcome home comments! And re 2010 TK7, the newly discovered Trojan, it appears to be relatively hard to reach because it moves so far above and below the plane of the Earth’s orbit. More about 2010 TK7 on Friday.

Daniel Suggs July 27, 2011 at 16:42

Glad to see you back. Is ‘Physics of the Future’, by Michio Kaku, a good read for amateurs? I am looking forward to reading Banks, which is the first I should start with? Once again, welcome back!

Paul Gilster July 27, 2011 at 17:49

Daniel, the first of Banks’ novels about ‘The Culture’ is Consider Phlebas, which is good, but I don’t know whether you need to read them in order or not (I haven’t). I loved both Use of Weapons and The Player of Games. Banks has also written quite a few other novels, not all of them science fiction.

The Kaku book is a broad overview of what may happen in the next 100 years in various areas of science. It’s highly speculative and treats a number of interesting concepts, though it doesn’t try to go into depth on any of them. But I found it useful for learning about current research in some areas I have no experience in, like medical technology, etc.

Connie McManus July 27, 2011 at 21:22

Ahhhh! So nice to have you back! And what a great story.. stories like this are what I thrive on. I’ve never read Iain Banks’ books, although they’re on my “must read” list. Now you’ve got me pumped to read them. I’m currently reading Gregory Benford’s “Starborn” – as referenced in passing here – and I am enjoying it a lot. Have you heard of Kay Kenyon? I just finished reading her series, The Entire and the Rose. Great story, fun descriptions of what it must be like around exotic matter, but no real science. Anyway, so nice to have you back and glad you had a good break … we all need that!

Adam July 28, 2011 at 6:04

Welcome back Paul! Hope you enjoyed your break.

All this water in the distant Universe reminds me of Carl Gibson’s Primordial Planets… First Life in the Oceans of Primordial-Planets: The Biological Big Bang

Wrigsted the Dane July 28, 2011 at 11:18

Sci fi is my favorite pastime, and Iain Bank is up there among my top 10 authors. Love the concept of ​​”The Culture” Alone the Ships, wtih their inspiring names is a most fantastic idea. I think it’s very hard to say which of his sci fi books are best, and he had also written sci fi there is not Culture books, but nevertheless is great sci fi.
Yea and nice to see you, back.

Paul Gilster July 28, 2011 at 12:04

Connie McManus writes:

Have you heard of Kay Kenyon?

I haven’t, but I’m well behind in SF and related genre reading these days. Nonetheless, I appreciate all the good suggestions! Readers here have already put me on to Banks, Alastair Reynolds and more.

Greg July 28, 2011 at 12:44

Paul glad to see you back!
Looking at this discovery, it wouldn’t be a giant leap to think that the water vapor would point to a higher probability of finding near by star systems with watery planets. This could be a so called pointer for search for life.

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