The researchers have found a mass of water vapor that's at least 140 trillion times that of all the water in all the Earth's oceans in a quasar -- one of the brightest and most violent objects in the cosmos -- 30 billion trillion miles away, a Caltech release said Friday.
"The environment around this quasar is unique in that it's producing this huge mass of water," says Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a visiting associate at Caltech. "It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times."
Because light from the distant quasar has taken 12 billion years to reach Earth, the observations reveal a time when the universe was just 1.6 billion years old.
A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole steadily consuming a surrounding disk of gas and dust and spewing out huge amounts of energy.
In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years, astronomers said.
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 current size.