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The distant galaxy's water was signaled by a maser, the radio equivalent of the laser. It was then Doppler shifted an passed through a gravitational lens to yield the following signature detected on Earth.  (Source: Milde Science Communication, STScI, CFHT, J.-C. Cuillandre, Coelum)
New discovery supports theories that water is abundant in the universe

In order for mankind to travel to, and perhaps one day live in the stars, a critical necessity is water.  Current research indicates that Mars and the moon both have water (though some recent research cast doubt on the latter).  Furthermore, water has been discovered on extrasolar planets.

However, until now the farthest water had been spotted was in a galaxy 7 billion light-years from Earth.  Now, that range has been extended significantly with the discovery of water on a distant galaxy over 11 billion light-years from Earth.

The discovery was made by joint work by the 100-meter-diameter radio telescope in Effelsberg, Germany and the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array in New Mexico.  Using these top-notch radio source detectors, scientists were able to detect water in the distant galaxy J0414+0534.

The soggy galaxy has a quasar at its center.   Quasars are massive black holes which emit intense radiation.  Surrounding the galactic core are masers, the radio equivalent of lasers, which work in concert with the quasar by amplify its radio waves.  They amplify it at the same frequency as water's characteristic radio signature, indicating that they or materials they pass through hold water.

Still, even with the ultra-intense masers help, the signal still would not have reached Earth if it were not for another intriguing space phenomenon.

Another galaxy sits 8 billion light-years away from Earth in a direct line of site with the soggy galaxy.  It amplifies its more distant neighbor's radio signals by acting as a gravity lens.  Impellizzeri, an astronomer with the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany describes, "We were only able to discover this distant water with the help of the gravitational lens.  This cosmic telescope reduced the amount of time needed to detect the water by a factor of about 1,000."

The Effelsberg telescope was the first to detect the signal.  The VLA, a more powerful telescope was brought on board to confirm the discovery.  The gravitational lens displayed four distinct images of the galaxy.  The two brightest images contained the signature of water masers.  The other two images were not clear enough to verify if they had water or not. 

Water signals, like other radio signals, undergo a Doppler shift due to the universe's expansion.  For the masers in this case, the signal was shifted from 22.2 GHz to a 6.1 GHz frequency.

It appears that the black hole quasar at the galaxy's center is either creating or spitting out water.  Typically water masers, a good method of distant water detection, emit water-specific signals when in-line with the disc of material orbiting the black hole, so-called "edge-on" alignment.  However, the newly detected masers are face-on; indicating that it is the material coming out of the black hole, rather than the material surrounding it which contains water.

John McKean, also of MPIfR explains, "This may mean that the water molecules in the masers we're seeing are not in the disk, but in the superfast jets of material being ejected by the gravitational power of the black hole."

Many other researchers helped on the project including Alan Roy, Christian Henkel, and Andreas Brunthaler, also of the Max-Planck Institute; Paola Castangia of the Max-Planck Institute and the INAF Astronomical Observatory of Cagliari in Italy; and Olaf Wucknitz of the Argelander Institute for Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.

The research can be found here in the journal Nature.





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