Signs of water on another planet, Scientists Discover Water in a Distant Galaxy Pair 12.88 Billion Light Years From Earth.
Water has been detected in the most massive galaxy pair in the early Universe, according to new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Scientists saw water along with carbon monoxide in SPT0311-58 — made up of two galaxies — located nearly 12.88 billion light-years from Earth. Water, in particular, is the third most abundant molecule in the Universe after molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
SPT0311-58 was first seen by ALMA scientists in 2017 at its location, or time, when the Universe was just 780 million years old — roughly 5 percent of its current age — and the first stars and galaxies were being born. Scientists believe that the two galaxies may be merging. Their rapid star formation is not only using up their gas or star-forming fuel, but it may eventually evolve the pair into massive elliptical galaxies like those seen in the Local Universe.
Signs of water in a distant galaxy: Life is possible on a different planet?
Scientists observing distant planets and galaxies are looking for indications that there might be planets orbiting in the habitable zone of stars. In addition to looking for those planets, they are also looking for clues that there may be elements required to support life as we know it, such as water. For example, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have been researching a massive galaxy formed in the early Universe called SPT0311-58.
During the research, scientists discovered signs of water and carbon monoxide in the galaxy. SPT0311-58 is 12.88 billion light-years away from Earth. With water and carbon monoxide detected in abundance, scientists believe the discovery confirms that the molecular Universe was filled with those elements shortly after it created the molecules in stars. The research represents the most detailed study ever made into the molecular gas content of a galaxy from the early Universe.
The discovery also represents the most distant detection of water in a star-forming galaxy. SPT0311-58 consists of two galaxies discovered in 2017, and both belong to the Epoch of Reionization. That epoch occurred when the Universe was only 780 million years old, about five percent of its current age. This is the time when the first stars and galaxies were being born.
Evidence suggests the two galaxies are currently combining, and scientists believe they are rapidly forming stars, using up gas. They also think the galaxies are evolving into massive elliptical galaxies like those seen in the Local Universe. To discover the water and carbon monoxide molecules, researchers utilized ALMA and focused on the larger of the two galaxies. Oxygen and carbon are first-generation elements, and in the molecular forms of carbon monoxide and water, they are required for life as we know it.
The giant galaxy is described as the most massive currently known at a high redshift, which is a time when the Universe was very young. Interestingly, it has more gas and dust than most galaxies from the early Universe providing scientists the opportunity to investigate the abundance of molecules and to learn how those molecules impact development in the early Universe. For example, water is the third most abundant molecule in the Universe after molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
The Bottom Line
Detection of these two molecules in abundance suggests that the molecular Universe was going strong shortly after the elements were forged in early stars. The new research comprises the most detailed study of the molecular gas content of a galaxy in the early Universe to date and the most distant detection of water in a regular star-forming galaxy.
The research is published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“Using high-resolution ALMA observations of molecular gas in the pair of galaxies known collectively as SPT0311-58, we detected both water and carbon monoxide molecules in the larger of the two galaxies. Oxygen and carbon, in particular, are first-generation elements. However, in the molecular forms of carbon monoxide and water, they are critical to life as we know it,” said Sreevani Jarugula, an astronomer at the University of Illinois and the principal investigator on the new research.