Ancient and Young Water Worlds of the Cosmos –“NASA Pinpoints Water Vapor Around a Newly Forming Star”

 

  Hatter7

 

 

A team of scientists using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has pinpointed the amount and location of water vapor around a newly forming star with groundbreaking precision. Using data collected aboard SOFIA, the team determined that most of this young star’s water vapor is located in material flowing away from the star, rather than within the disk of matter orbiting around it. This location is unexpected, indicating that if planets formed around this star, they might receive only a small fraction of the water in the system.


These observations were made possible by using SOFIA’s airborne vantage point in the Stratosphere — at an altitude above 99% of Earth’s water vapor, which prevents this type of measurement from the ground– as well as the precision and sensitivity of the EXES (Echelon-Cross-Echelle Spectrograph) instrument aboard SOFIA. The instrument spreads infrared light into its component colors with very high detail, providing scientists with more information about this light than was previously possible.

 

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“This detection of water vapor would have been impossible for any ground-based observatory, and there are currently no space-borne telescopes providing this capability,” said SOFIA project scientist Pamela Marcum. “These mid-infrared observations allow us to directly measure the amount of water vapor in this young star, expanding our understanding of the distribution of water in the universe and its eventual incorporation into planets. The water detected today could be the oceans of tomorrow in planets that form around these new stars.”

Earlier, in 2008, the discovery of water vapor in a distant quasar system challenged established ideas about the existence of water in the early universe. At 11 billion-years-old, the was the farthest, oldest, water ever seen in the Universe.

Max Planck Institute researcher Violette Impellizzeri discovered the water vapor using spectroscopic analysis – essentially, looking for a radio signal that matches the signature of a water molecule shown in the image above . “Others have tried and failed to find water, and we knew we were looking for a very faint signal, so we thought of using a foreground galaxy like a cosmic magnifying glass to observe at a far greater distance and had to be persistent, and sure enough the line emission of water popped up.”

 

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Later in 2011, two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The water, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in the world’s ocean, surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away.

“The environment around this quasar is very unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water,” said Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.” Bradford leads one of the teams that made the discovery. His team’s research is partially funded by NASA and appears in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that steadily consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust. As it eats, the quasar spews out huge amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

Astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early, distant universe, but had not detected it this far away before. There’s water vapor in the Milky Way, although the total amount is 4,000 times less than in the quasar, because most of the Milky Way’s water is frozen in ice.

Water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of the quasar. In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years in size (a light-year is about six trillion miles). Its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas in X-rays and infrared radiation, and 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.

Measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it grows to about six times its size. Whether this will happen is not clear, the astronomers say, since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or might be ejected from the quasar.

The Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL, Kassandra Bell and Dana Backman
SOFIA Science Center, NASA Ames Research Center

The Daily Galaxy via Kassandra Bell and Dana Backman/SOFIA Science Center, NASA Ames Research Center

Image credits: NASA/JPL; Top of page with thanks http://wallup.net/space-stars-water-sea-night-reflection/

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