Water – A Requirement for Life As We Know It – Detected in a Galaxy Far, Far Away


Artist’s Conception of Dust Continuum and Molecular Lines in SPT0311-58

This artist’s conception shows the dust continuum and molecular lines of carbon monoxide and water seen in the pair of galaxies known as SPT0311-58. ALMA data reveals abundant CO and H20 in the larger of the two galaxies, indicating that the molecular Universe was going strong shortly after the elements were initially forged. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)

New study marks most distant detection of required element for life as we know it in a regular star-forming galaxy.

Water has been detected in the most massive galaxy in the early Universe, according to new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (first seen by ALMA scientists in 2017 at its location, or time, in the Epoch of Reionization. This epoch occurred at a 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, and that their rapid star formation is not only using up their gas, or star-forming fuel, but that it may eventually evolve the pair into massive elliptical galaxies like those seen in the Local Universe.

Animated Composite View of SPT0311-58

This animated gif moves through the dust continuum and molecular lines for water and carbon monoxide seen in ALMA observations of the pair of early massive galaxies known as SPT0311-58. This gif begins with a composite combining the dust continuum with molecular lines for H20 and CO. It is followed by the dust continuum seen in red, molecular lines for H20 seen in blue, molecular lines for carbon monoxide, CO(10-9) shown in pinks and deep blue, CO(7-6) shown in magenta, and CO(6-5) shown in purple. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)

“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, and 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. “This galaxy is the most massive galaxy currently known at high redshift, or the time when the Universe was still very young. It has more gas and dust compared to other galaxies in the early Universe, which gives us plenty of potential opportunities to observe abundant molecules and to better understand how these life-creating elements impacted the development of the early Universe.”

Water, in particular, is the third most abundant molecule in the Universe after molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Previous studies of galaxies in the local and early Universe have correlated water emission and the far-infrared emission from dust. “The dust absorbs the ultraviolet radiation from the stars in the galaxy and re-emits it as far-infrared photons,” said Jarugula. “This further excites the water molecules, giving rise to the water emission that scientists are able to observe. In this case, it helped us to detect water emission in this massive galaxy. This correlation could be used to develop water as a tracer of star formation, which could then be applied to galaxies on a cosmological scale.”

Radio View of SPT0311-58

These science images show the molecular lines and dust continuum seen in ALMA observations of the pair of early massive galaxies known as SPT0311-58. On left: A composite image combining the dust continuum with molecular lines for H20 and CO. On right: The dust continuum seen in red (top), molecular line for H20 shown in blue (2nd from top), molecular line transitions for carbon monoxide, CO(6-5) shown in purple (middle), CO(7-6) shown in magenta (second from bottom), and CO(10-9) shown in pinks and deep blue (bottom). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)

Studying the first galaxies to form in the Universe helps scientists to better understand the birth, growth, and evolution of the Universe, and everything in it, including the Solar System and Earth. “Early galaxies are forming stars at a rate thousands of times that of the (function(d, s, id){ var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.6"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));



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