Ancient black hole contains 100,000 Suns worth of water

Illustration for article titled Ancient black hole contains 100,000 Suns worth of water

A distant, hyper-energetic black hole known as a quasar contains the largest reserve of water in the known universe, equivalent to 140 trillion times the water on Earth. The solution to our water crisis is only 12 billion light-years away!


Technically speaking, quasars occur when giant black holes suck in huge amounts of gas and dust, spewing back out equally immense amounts of energy. This particular quasar is APM 08279+5255, whose black hole is 20 billion times the mass of the Sun and produces enough energy to power a quadrillion copies of our star. It dates back to the early days of the universe, just 1.6 billion years after the Big Bang. That makes this water the earliest in the known cosmos.

Of course, we're not talking about a gargantuan space ocean here, cool as that might be. The water is in its gaseous, vapor form, and it's distributed over hundreds of light-years, with an average temperature of just minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit and an average density 300 trillion times less than that of Earth's atmosphere. That may sound kind of unimpressive, but it's all about perspective - this particular cosmic reservoir is about five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than the water reserves you find in the Milky Way and other galaxies.

Speaking of which, just to put this all in perspective, there's about 4,000 times the amount of water in this quasar than in our entire galaxy combined. This water has an equivalent mass of 100,000 Suns or 34 billion Earths. And the water isn't just standing around being gaseous, as a Carnegie Institution press release explains:

The large quantity of water vapor in the quasar indicates that it is bathing the gas in both X-rays and infrared radiation. The interaction between the radiation and water vapor reveals properties of how the gas is influenced by the quasar. For example, analyzing the water vapor shows how the radiation heats the rest of the gas. Furthermore, measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest that there is enough gas to enable the black hole to grow to about six times its size. Whether or not this has happened is unclear, the astronomers say, since some of the gas could condense into stars or being ejected from the quasar.

You know, I'd like to think that when Samuel Coleridge wrote, "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink", he was thinking about this story. And knowing Coleridge, I don't think we can entirely rule that out.

Via NASA. Artist's conception of a quasar by NASA and ESA.




So, I'm not an astrophysicist or anything, but if the water is observable (albeit indirectly) and at the temperature and density stated, how is it in any way "contained" in the black hole? Perspective being what it is across space-time, couldn't similar (and probably more likely) readings come about as a result of the quasar's energy passing through some massive cloud of water vapor directly in line between us and it?

If the water really was in the black hole, we wouldn't be able to observe it, or any energy passing through it, right? or is that just a gross misunderstanding of black hole physics? Out of curiosity, how would water behave within the event horizon, as gravity tries to compress it? Would it compress down to a non-crystalline solid at some point (since ice is less dense than liquid water) or stay liquid until...?