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Image of the Day: 12-Billion Year-Old Quasar --Surrounded by 140-Trillion Times the Water in Earth's Oceans




In the summer of 2011, two teams of astronomers 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.

"This thing is at the edge of the dark ages, before the first stars in the universe were born," said Chris Carilli, an astronomer at the NSF's National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM." 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."

The quasar, APM 08279+5255, was discovered in 1998. Observations with optical and infrared telescopes revealed that the quasar, a young galaxy with a voracious black hole at its center (image above), was forming new stars rapidly in a starburst. At a distance of more than 12 billion light-years, the quasar is seen as it was more than 12 billion years ago, just a billion or so years after the Big Bang.

Bradford led one of the teams that made the discovery.  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.

Bradford's team made their observations starting in 2008, using an instrument called "Z-Spec" at the California Institute of Technology's Submillimeter Observatory, a 33-foot (10-meter) telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Follow-up observations were made with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water. In 2010, Lis's team serendipitously detected water in APM 8279+5255, observing one spectral signature. Bradford's team was able to get more information about the water, including its enormous mass, because they detected several spectral signatures of the water.

The Chandra X Ray Observatory double image of APM 08279 below is caused by the bending of its light by an intervening galaxy, an effect called gravitational lensing. This effect also magnifies the light of the quasar 100 fold allowing for a detailed study of its properties even though it is 12 billion light years away.



The Daily Galaxy via


I'm no scientist but this part has me confused:

"This thing is at the edge of the dark ages, before the first stars in the universe were born,"

How can you have a black hole before the stars were born? Don't blackholes originate from stars?

How can you have oxygen (as in H2O) "before the first stars in the universe were born"?

^^^ I was going to ask the exact same thing????

It may be talking about primordial black holes.

And the water vapor cloud may not necessarily be right NEXT to the old quasar but perhaps millions of ly's away.

To correct myself, the article states that the vapor IS near to the quasar. My fault.

lol just go on to show how much scientists don't know. i know they like to think they know more then they actually do but they are only fooling themselves. lol big bang theory.... lol i don't understand how they can standardize something so ridiculous

Don't blame the scientists for a mistake the writer of this story made.

"lol i don't understand how they can standardize something so ridiculous"

You could actually have stopped at "lol i don't understand".

That's actually exactly the point-- you DON'T understand, and if you did then you'd know why they talk about the so-called big bang the way they do.

It's because it's what allows all the math to work based on everything we've been able to observe. When we discover something else that shows that big bang theory math doesn't work, then we'll look for what makes it all work again and go from there.

No scientist has ever made the claim that they know how everything works, because arrogance isn't a part of the scientific process. Science is the process of discovery, which means making mistakes sometimes, and then discarding those mistakes once you realize they were mistakes and once again looking for the truth. Science is the process of truth-seeking.

Laughing smugly at those who dedicate their entire lives to finding the truth just because they've made some missteps along the way while still relentlessly continuing their pursuit of that truth-- that's the height of arrogance and the pinnacle of foolishness, but I don't expect you to be able to understand that. Of the two kinds of people, only one is deserving of derision, and they rarely receive as much of it as they've earned themselves. Can you figure out which type it is?

Pretty sure it's just an expression. It's not actually the dark age. Also, it might be a referral to the entropy at the edge of our visible universe. Meaning it's just barely in our sights and everything beyond has expanded too far out to see any other nearby stars.

It's a shot in the dark.

Also, before the first stars were born might be a reference to the stars in our galaxy, since 12 billion years ago, our galaxy might not have existed. (I'm not sure on the age of our galaxy)

Also, Keith D. - Lighten up dude. Contribute something positive! =D

well said Keith D. Someone needs to correct the morons. I'd say your defense science was quite positive.

Keith. You rule.

"This thing is at the edge of the dark ages, before the first stars in the universe were born,"

Might be interpreted as, "This thing is nearly in the dark ages. The dark ages was a period before the first stars in the universe were born."

Not that I necessarily take the contents of the sentence as fact, but I think the 'before the stars in the universe were born' fragment was explaining what 'dark ages' meant

The first "stars" were in effect galactic nuclei, huge by contemporary standards (think Canis Majoris, which is some 2000 times the size of the sun, then triple or quadruple that). The lifespans of these stars was only 10-20 million years or so before they imploded/exploded, the former process creating elements up to iron (but primarily up to neon) the latter distributing these primordial heavier atoms into the cosmos. This really was the dark ages - the great waves of star making were still billions of years in the future, and there were only a few of these giant stars in any given proto-galactic region, the rest being hydrogen and helium clouds. If earth had been around then, there would only be a handful of very distant points of light in an otherwise endless black sky.

A black hole thousands of trillions times the size of our sun seems inconceivable at any time, much less the early stages of the universe.

We are also witnessing clear evidence of entire galaxies formed more than thirteen billion years ago... apparently 500 million years after the big-bang. Also inconceivable...

Again... it might be argued that these hyper-massive black-holes are the machinery creating galaxies at the very least or [as Prof Roger Penrose proposed] whole 'neighbourhoods' of space-time in a universe recycling itself across a much larger scales than 13.7 billion years.

@yo: What goes "Hahahathud"?

What if all that water is actually generated by that power source (black hole)?

Prove to me it is not the case. Seriously.

Still not convinced black holes are all they are claimed to be BUT
1- Could it be possible that as the big bang was happening that enough matter was blasted as in a group to make a black hole in seconds or minutes or in hours?
2- If the big bang was cyclic, would it need to wait till every last atom was returned before going off again?

Oh, and yes, WTG Keith D! You sure put that probably a twelve year old in his place!

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