The discovery of water vapor in a distant quasar system has overturned established ideas about the existence of water in the early universe.

This is the farthest, and thus the oldest, water ever seen in the Universe. (Because the light from this quasar took 11.1 billion years to reach Earth, it is 11.1 billion years old.)

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 (see image). She found the water in just 14 hours by using a nearby galaxy as a telescopic lens: The galaxy's gravity magnifies the light coming from objects behind it, quadrupling the images of those objects (you can see all four versions of the quasar in the picture) and making their radio signatures easier to analyze. Essentially, she created a gravity lens.


Said Impellizzeri:

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.

Added co-researcher John McKean:


It is interesting that we found water in the first gravitationally-magnified object we observed from the distant Universe. This suggests that the water molecule may have been much more abundant in the early Universe than first thought, and can be used for further research into supermassive black holes and galaxy evolution at high redshift.

So water may be more common, and more ancient, than we ever imagined. Although this water vapor was part of a cloud of dust around a supermassive black hole at the heart of a quasar, it could also mean that water exists in far more mundane parts of the Universe too. On water planets like Earth, for example.

SOURCE: Max Planck Institute