Water discovered at a record distance from Earth – sciences et Avenir

The Universe was not even a billion years old that water already existed! This is the amazing discovery of a team of astrophysicists led by the University of Illinois (United States), and made using the ALMA radio telescope installed in Chile. Their result is detailed in the Astrophysical Journal. In fact, molecules of water and carbon monoxide (CO) have been detected in a galaxy, SPT0311-58, located 12.88 billion light years from us. Never before has the precious liquid been seen at such a distance …

A couple of galaxies discovered in 2017

SPT0311-58 was detected in 2017, also thanks to ALMA. It is the most massive galaxy ever observed in the young Universe. Such a large structure is already a surprise in itself, less than a billion years after the Big Bang. In addition, it is not one but two very close galaxies, and probably in the process of merging. Although in itself, its size makes it easier to observe. “Using ALMA’s high resolution to observe clouds of molecular gases present in this pair of galaxies […], we detected water and carbon monoxide in the larger of two, “says the website of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Sreevani Jarugula, an astronomer at the University of Illinois and lead author of the publication.

In the trifecta of the most abundant molecules in the Universe

But why is it so interesting to unearth these molecules that, after all, appear in the winning trifecta of the most abundant in the Universe? (In levels in order: H2, CO and H20). This simply shows that the machine to manufacture molecules was started very early, knowing that before it was necessary to manufacture atoms of oxygen and carbon in the first generations of stars … “This study answers the question of where and at what time . at what time do we find water in the Universe. But above all the question arises as to how much gas and dust have gathered so early to form stars and galaxies? “, sums up Sreevani. Jarugula. Another remarkable fact: how can we distinguish molecules from Such a distance from us? The observation was made possible by the presence of dust in the molecular clouds scanned by ALMA. The dust absorbs ultraviolet radiation from stars and re-emits it in the near infrared. The infrared then excites the water molecules which then they will emit radiation that will be perceived by the radio telescope in the millimeter and submillimeter wave range, to which it is sensitive.

Essential elements for life

In addition to informing astronomers about the staggering precociousness of the Universe, this study also shows that water and carbon monoxide, both critical to life, filled the cosmos from its earliest ages. What to suggest that life had a chance to appear very early. However, it will be necessary to know much more about the composition of these first structures before deducing that they could have been populated …

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