Research Team Finds Most Distant Water in the Universe

December 18, 2008

(ChattahBox) — Astronomers have detected water in a galaxy more than 11 billion light-years from Earth. Previously, the most distant water discovered had been seen in a galaxy less than 7 billion light-years from Earth.

The galaxy, named MG J0414+0534, was spied on using the giant, 100-meter-diameter radio telescope in Effelsberg, Germany, and the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which picked uo the telltale radio “fingerprint” of water molecules. MG J0414+0534, harbors a quasar, a super massive black hole powering bright emission at its core.

In the region near the core, the water molecules are acting as masers, the radio equivalent of lasers, to amplify radio waves at a specific frequency. The astronomers say their discovery indicates that such giant water masers were more common in the early Universe than they are today. MG J0414+0534 is seen as it was when the Universe was roughly one-sixth of its current age.

At the galaxy’s great distance, even the strengthening of the radio waves done by the masers would not by itself have made them strong enough to detect with the radio telescopes. However, the scientists got help from nature in the form of another galaxy, nearly 8 billion light-years away, located directly in the line of sight from MG J0414+0534 to Earth. That foreground galaxy’s gravity served as a lens to further brighten the more-distant galaxy and make the emission from the water molecules visible to the radio telescopes. The ‘cosmic telescope’ reduced the amount of time needed to detect the water by a factor of about 1,000

Water masers have been found in numerous galaxies at closer distances. Typically, they are thought to arise in disks of molecules closely orbiting a supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. The amplified radio emission is more often observed when the orbiting disk is seen nearly edge-on. However, the astronomers said MG J0414+0534 is oriented with the disk almost face-on as seen from Earth.

The research group led by graduate student Violette Impellizzeri from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy reported their results in the December 18 issue of the scientific journal Nature.


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