The biggest reservoir of water in the Universe

This image shows a quasar that has been found to hold 100 trillion times as much water as all the oceans on Earth. Quasar APM 08279+5255 was discovered in 1998, and features in Chapter One of my upcoming book, “Water a Visual and Scientific History“.

The quasar is not host to lakes or rivers of water. This enormous amount of water is in the form of vapour. Scientists discovered the water in 2008/9, at the now-defunkt Caltech Submillimeter Observatory.

A quasar (short for “quasi-stellar object”) is the centre of a distant galaxy, in which a supermassive black hole is dragging in matter from its surroundings. As the matter falls into the black hole, it heats up so much that it glows brightly, giving out light but also X-ray radiation.

The image (credit: NASA/CXC/PSU/G.Chartas) is from the Chandra X-ray obbservatory. While it appears there are two bright spots, there is only actually one: the active centre of the galaxy, home of the supermassive black hole. The X-rays that come from the space around the black hole have been bent as they passed close to galaxies on the 13 billion year journey from there to here. This distortion of images of distant galaxies is known as gravitational lensing. Here’s a great explanation of that phenomenon, in case you’d like to know more:

You can find out more about the quasar by searching the Web for “APM 08279+5255”. You can also find out more, in the context of water in the Universe at large, in Chapter One of “Water a Visual and Scientific History“, out in August 2021.