Scientists Discover Water Cloud in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Quasar art

Artist's rendering of a quasar

Discussions of black holes in space tend to veer toward science-fiction. Couple that with stories of water on distant planets or moons and you have a tale that many would find hard to believe. However, as National Geographic recently reported, traces of water outside the realm of Earth is now science-fact and evidence suggests that a large mass of water vapor resides in a black hole light years from Earth.

A study co-authored by Eric Murphy, an astronomer based in Pasadena, California who works at Carnegie Observatories, has indicated that “in a galaxy 12 billion light-years away resides the most distant and most massive cloud of water yet seen in the universe…Weighing in at 40 billion times the mass of Earth, the giant cloud of mist swaddles a type of actively feeding supermassive black hole known as a quasar.”

Terms like black holes and quasars may sound a bit daunting, but the concepts are easy to understand. NASA states that a black hole “is a great amount of matter packed into a very small area – think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.”

And quasars “are black holes at the centers of galaxies that are gravitationally consuming surrounding disks of material while burping back out powerful energy jets. As this disk of material is consumed by the central black hole, it releases energy in the form of x-ray and infrared radiation, which in turn can heat the surrounding material, resulting in the observed water vapor.”

Murphy’s study indicates that water resides within this quasar, but just how much water are we talking about? According to the study, the vapor surrounding the quasar could have “enough water to fill all the oceans on the Earth over 140 trillion times.”

While we won’t have access to intergalactic water anytime soon there is still plenty of scientific worth to this major finding: “Astronomers are hoping to use the find to study how large quantities of water in the young universe may have acted as efficient coolants of the interstellar medium—the thin gas and dust that exists between stars—possibly affecting star formation and the evolution of galaxies such as our Milky Way.”

As for now, take the time to enjoy terrestrial water.