The SPT0311-58 galaxy includes a pair of galaxies that formed less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry

Surprising Discovery Reveals Water in Massive Galaxy in the Ancient Universe

Knowing how important water is for life on Earth, it could have an equally significant role in the origin and existence of life in remote regions of the universe.

While observing the distant massive galaxy SPT0311-58, astronomers found signs of the presence of water and carbon monoxide. This galaxy is known as the most massive one in the early Universe. The discovery proves that water can exist on the other side of the universe in the same way it exists here on Earth. 


Astronomers found water in one of the oldest and most distant galaxies in the Universe

Distance

“Distant” is a weak word when referring to the SPT0311-58 galaxy. It is located approximately 12,88 billion light-years from Earth. Given that the universe’s light-year radius has been estimated at 46.5 billion, this distance is significant.

Double galaxy

It should be noted that SPT0311-58 is not a typical galaxy. It consists of two combined galaxies that surprisingly have different characteristics. For instance, researchers found water and carbon monoxide molecules only in the larger one of the two.

Artist's impression of the dust continuum and molecular lines of water and carbon in the SPT0311-58 galaxies. Observations with ALMA found an abundance of molecules. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)
Artist’s impression of the dust continuum and molecular lines of water and carbon in the SPT0311-58 galaxy. Observations with ALMA found an abundance of molecules. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)

Water in the SPT0311-58 galaxy

This discovery marks the furthest water has ever been found in the universe and gives scientists new opportunities to study the early universe. The astronomers recall that water is the third largest molecule in the universe after molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Studying early galaxies is helping scientists better understand how the universe was born and evolved, including our solar system and Earth.

Age and composition

The SPT0311-58 galaxy formed when the universe was only 780 million years old. It was at that time that the first stars and galaxies were just emerging. Scientists note that both galaxies within SPT0311-58 have more gas and dust than other ancient galaxies. Further studies could reveal more unknown details about the development processes of the early universe.

This series of images show the molecular lines and dust continuum as captured during observations with the ALMA telescope. On the left, you see a composite image combining all four on the right, which include isolated observations of the dust continuum, H2O, carbon monoxide, and more. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)
This series of images show the molecular lines and dust continuum in the SPT0311-58 galaxy as captured during observations with the ALMA telescope. On the left, you see a composite image combining all four on the right, which include isolated observations of the dust continuum, H2O, carbon monoxide, and more. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)

Star formation

For instance, here is a curious process – ultraviolet radiation from stars gets absorbed by dust. Then, it is re-emitted out as far-infrared protons. This is a correlation that can be used in star formation studies and applied to galaxies on a cosmological scale.

Ancient galaxies form stars faster than the Milky Way

It is known that ancient galaxies from the early Universe have more active star-forming regions and thus, form stars faster than the Milky Way, for example. Especially in the case of the SPT0311-58 galaxy, scientists have a lot more questions that need answers. For example, how do the two galaxies interact, and how does it influence star formation?

Significance of the latest results

Finding signs of water and carbon in this distant galaxy is an exciting and intriguing milestone for astronomers. It proves that water can exist practically anywhere in the universe. Knowing how important it is for life on Earth, it could be equally as significant for the origin and existence of life in remote regions of the universe.


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Sources:

Maring, J. (2021, November 3). Scientists just found water deeper in the universe than ever before. ScreenRant.
National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (2021, November 3). Alma scientists detect signs of water in a galaxy far, Far away.
Pultarova, T. (2021, November 5). Astronomers detect water in one of the oldest known galaxies. Space.com.
Rabie, P. (2021, November 3). Scientists just found water in the most distant part of the universe so far. Inverse.
ScienceDaily. (2021, November 3). Scientists detect signs of water in a galaxy far, Far away.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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