The presence of water in the circumstellar disk of V883 Orionis, a protostar in Orion some 1300 light years out, is not in itself surprising. Water in interstellar space is known to form as ice on dust grains in molecular clouds, and clouds of this nature collapse to form young stars. We would expect that water would be found in the emerging circumstellar disk.

What new work with data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) shows is that such water remains unchanged as young star systems evolve, a chain of growth from protostar to protoplanetary disk and eventually planets and water-carrying comets. John Tobin, an astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), is lead author on the paper on this work:

“We can think of the path of water through the Universe as a trail. We know what the endpoints look like, which are water on planets and in comets, but we wanted to trace that trail back to the origins of water. Before now, we could link the Earth to comets, and protostars to the interstellar medium, but we couldn’t link protostars to comets. V883 Ori has changed that, and proven the water molecules in that system and in our Solar System have a similar ratio of deuterium and hydrogen.”

Image: While searching for the origins of water in our Solar System, scientists homed in on V883 Orionis, a unique protostar located 1,305 light-years away from Earth. Unlike with other protostars, the circumstellar disk surrounding V883 Ori is just hot enough that the water in it has transformed from ice into gas, making it possible for scientists to study its composition using radio telescopes like those at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Radio observations of the protostar revealed water (orange), a dust continuum (green), and molecular gas (blue) which suggests that the water on this protostar is extremely similar to the water on objects in our own Solar System, and may have similar origins. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Tobin, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF).

V883 Ori is interesting in its own right as a star undergoing a so-called ‘accretion burst,’ a rarely observed occurrence in which a star in the process of formation ingests a huge amount of disk material, forcing an increase in its luminosity. Water reaches its condensation temperature at the ‘snow line,’ but finding the water snow line in a protoplanetary disk isn’t easy because for emerging stars similar to the Sun, it usually occurs as close as 5 AU, making the signal difficult to tease out through the dusty disk.

But V883 Ori has a disk massive and warm enough to allow these ALMA observations to distinguish the demarcation. The star masses 1.3 times the mass of the Sun, with a snow line now measured to have a radius of approximately 80 AU. Water is detected out to a radius of 160 AU according to the paper on this work, which recently appeared in Nature.

The water snow line is significant because water has much to do with the efficiency of early planetesimal formation as well as comets, not to mention its role in ice giants and gas giant cores. As we probe planet formation, we can also consider the implications of V883 Ori’s accretion burst, which raises the prospect that young stars in this stage of activity have water snow lines that can be highly dynamical, as a 2016 paper on V883 Ori points out (citation below). The new work finds gas phase water at a distance comparable to our own Kuiper Belt, with a composition that shows it remains unchanged through the stages of stellar system formation.

Merel van ‘t Hoff (University of Michigan) is a co-author on the 2023 paper:

“This means that the water in our Solar System was formed long before the Sun, planets, and comets formed. We already knew that there is plenty of water ice in the interstellar medium. Our results show that this water got directly incorporated into the Solar System during its formation. This is exciting as it suggests that other planetary systems should have received large amounts of water too.”

The paper is Tobin et al., “Deuterium-enriched water ties planet-forming disks to comets and protostars,” Nature 615 (08 March 2023), 227-230 (abstract). See also Cieza et al., “Imaging the water snow-line during a protostellar outburst,” Nature 535 (13 July 2016), 258–261 (abstract).