Image: NASA/ESA, via Caltech
Astronomers have discovered the largest mass of water known to exist. So we humans can go right on mucking up our frail planet's meager reserves of fresh water, we know where to find plenty more? But wait, there's a hitch.The water, enough to fill earth's oceans "more than 100 trillion times," has been detected in a quasar 12 billion light years (72 billion trillion miles) from here. The signals detected from the quasar, which is a black hole sucking matter into it at a high rate, represents activity that occurred early in the formation of the universe, when it was a mere toddler of 1.6 billion years (scientists believe the universe now to be 13.6 billion years old).
"It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times," according to Matt Bradford, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist working as a visiting associate at Caltech. The research was led by the California Institute of Technology and involved the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The real fruit of this research is not the lovely source of water vapor -- perhaps long since consumed by the evolution of planetary systems with lifeforms not dissimilar to ourselves, who are now mucking up the last dregs of clean water in their neighborhood.
The excitement buzzing around this investigation is the quality of scientific results yielded by the Z-Spec detectors at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. The
Z-Spec has been operating since 2005, reading light in the "millimeter band", which lies between microwave and infrared radiation. The Z-Spec's "spectral coverage is 10 times larger than that of previous spectrometers operating at these wavelengths." This leap in technology made this discovery of the farthest mass of water possible.
Scientists are looking forward to further developing the Z-Spec technology in CCAT, a 25-meter telescope that will peer into space from the Atacama Desert in Chile. CCAT will track down some of the primordial galaxies to further mankind's understanding of how we got here. And why we should want to stay.