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Earth’s water may be older than the sun

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The protostar V883 Orionis is about 1,300 light years from Earth. An international team of scientists decided to look into its vicinity using the ALMA radio telescope network. It turned out that there is gaseous water in the disk that surrounds the object. The discovery could explain the origin of water in our solar system.

Scientists from the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have succeeded in detecting gaseous water at a very remote location in space. Traces of this vital chemical are found in the disk that surrounds the star V883 Orionis, they reported. These reports may explain the route water has to take from the gas clouds to the planets and support the thesis that its resources on Earth may be older than the Sun.

The discovery was made possible using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a network of radio telescopes in northern Chile. The study was published in the Wednesday issue of the science journal Nature.

“Now we can trace the origin of water in the solar system back to before the formation of the sun,” said astronomer John J. Tobin of the NRAO.

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The discovery came as scientists analyzed the composition of water in a planet-forming disk near the protstar V883 Orionis, about 1,300 light-years from Earth. They reported that when a cloud of gas and dust begins to collapse, a star is formed in its center. The remaining material also forms a disk that orbits the star. Over millions of years, various celestial bodies can form from it: comets, asteroidsas well as planets. Tobin’s team focused on measuring the chemical signatures of water and its path from the star-forming cloud to the planets.

A disk around the star V883 Orionis. VisualizationESO/L Calçada

“Missing link”

However, Tobin’s team did not analyze water as we know it, consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Instead, they looked for a substance in which one of the hydrogen atoms is replaced with deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen. “Because ordinary and heavy water form under different conditions, their ratio can be used to trace when and where a given water was formed. For example, the ratio of these two types of water in some solar system comets is similar to water on Earth, suggesting that they may have formed they will bring water to Earth,” ESO explained in a release.

Science is already familiar with observations of water moving from clouds to young stars, and from comets to planets. However, it was not clear how water is transported from young stars to comets.

– V883 Orionis is the missing link. The composition of the water in the disk is very similar to that in comets in our own solar system. This confirms the concept that water in planetary systems was formed billions of years ago, before the sun formed, in interstellar space and was inherited by both comets and Earth relatively unchanged, Tobin said.

From gas clouds, through disks, to planetary systems. VisualizationESO/L Calçada

Unusually warm

Observations of this process were not the easiest.

‘Most of the water in planet-forming discs is frozen as ice, so it’s usually hidden from our view,’ said Margot Leemker, a PhD student at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands who participated in the study.

The gaseous form of water can be detected by observing the radiation emitted by the movement of its molecules. When it’s frozen, the movement of molecules is restricted and therefore harder to detect. Due to the heat produced by the star, the gaseous form of water is more likely to be found a short distance from its center. However, it is hidden by a dust disk and too small to be easily seen in telescopic images.

However, the disk of V883 Orionis turned out to be unusually hot, and each burst of energy from the star further heats it “to a temperature where the water is no longer in the form of ice but gas, allowing it to be detected,” explained Tobin.

A disk around the star V883 Orionis. ALMA’s photosALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Tobin, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

They want to explore further

Astronomers managed not only to detect water, determine its composition, but also create a map of its distribution in the disk. It turned out that there is as much of it as in all the earth’s oceans, if you multiply them by 1200 times. Their further plans include further observations of the object, for example with the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which is to be built by 2025. Thanks to the device, it will be possible to “separate the gaseous phase of water in such discs, strengthening the connections between the various stages of the water path from star-forming clouds to solar systems.”

“This will give us a much more comprehensive picture of the ice and gas in the planet-forming discs,” Leemker concluded.

Main photo source: ESO/L Calçada

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