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Space Science

Water Detected At Record Distance From Earth 104

Matt_dk writes with news that scientists have detected water in a galaxy 11.5 billion light-years from Earth. Evidence came in the form of emissions from water masers around a quasar at the center of the galaxy. Detection at such a large distance was made possible by a closer, intervening galaxy which acted as a gravitational lens. "'We were only able to discover this distant water with the help of the gravitational lens,' said Violette Impellizzeri, an astronomer with the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany. 'This cosmic telescope reduced the amount of time needed to detect the water by a factor of about 1,000,' she added. The astronomers first detected the water signal with the Effelsberg telescope. They then turned to the VLA's sharper imaging capability to confirm that it was indeed coming from the distant galaxy. The gravitational lens produces not one, but four images of MG J0414+0534 as seen from Earth. Using the VLA, the scientists found the specific frequency attributable to the water masers in the two brightest of the four lensed images. The other two lensed images, they said, are too faint for detecting the water signal. The radio frequency emitted by the water molecules was Doppler shifted by the expansion of the Universe from 22.2 GHz to 6.1 GHz."
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Water Detected At Record Distance From Earth

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  • If you don't give me *one million* dollars, I'll use my *maser* on all of mankind. (evil laugh)
  • but my refrigerator is closer if I want a drink.
  • Water means life? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <> on Sunday December 21, 2008 @12:08PM (#26191605)

    We try to think about life as it may exist outside of our planet and solar system, but we always run into the problem of defining the term life. Because of our limited understanding, we search for pockets of water, which ought to at least provide a certain frame of reference close to our own in which we could find something that resembles life as we know it.

    But we may also be overlooking life that we just don't understand and haven't the means to detect yet. Life as a system of planets, taking millenia to process a single thought. Life as rapidly integrating and disintegrating iron meshes on the surface of stars, communicating electrically and going through thousands of generations in seconds.

    Finding water at these distances isn't so much the search for alternate worlds to habitate when we lose our Earth, it is much more a search for life similar to ours. But perhaps, I wonder, we are missing a whole range of other life in the universe due to our lack of capacity to imagine other types of life.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Not really. Our understanding of life is grounded firmly in chemistry and physics, which are literally universal. You science-fiction wankery is entirely beside the point.

      • And your understanding of chemistry and physics is such that you know for certain that no chemical and physical processes are possible that give rise to mechanisms unlike any on Earth, though we might still call them life? If you know all humans are based on DNA, which has universal rules, do you know every person on Earth?
        • Our of knowledge and physics has a foundation in mathematics, mathematics concepts do not change just because you relocate to other parts of the Universe.

          As for the second, I don't know what you are smoking, but seems to be very good.

      • You science-fiction wankery is entirely beside the point.

        Naive people who are threatened by science and therefore revel in fantasies of its ignorance will mod him up. That is the point.

        • Naive people who are threatened by science and therefore revel in fantasies of its ignorance will mod him up.

          Well, I'm a PhD student in bioinformatics -- are you going to tell me that I'm "naive" or "threatened by science?" And I though what he had to say was pretty interesting.

          • Yes.

            By all means, add your supposed credibility to the orignal poster's handwavium. Why don't you explain how such things might come about?

            • I don't mean to be captain obvious, but just because one understands fenomena one way, it surelly doesn't mean there is no other way to perceive it.

              My whole point being, the current state of science may allow us to understand biology, chemistry, physics in such a way we verify it as being universal, but nevertheless, what we perceive as universal may only be a subset of each field. One should not label something as impossible just because the current state of science does not contemplate it.

            • Having fun moving those goalposts around?

              You wrote specifically of "naive people threatened by science." I am neither naive nor threatened by science, and most likely, neither are the people who modded OP up. If you claim otherwise, you need to back it up. Neither I nor anyone else is obliged to get into a specific discussion of possible mechanisms until you justify what you wrote.

              • Goalposts? This is Popperball and you joined the losing team.

                Until you can establish any scientific credibility for the OP's sci-fi cliches, I say you're a Romantic who values mystery over certainty, awe over understanding, a jealous non-rationalist who hates how scientific knowledge is immune to rhetorical attack and how it relentlessly shatters all your cozy wish fulfilling fantasies born of ignorance.

                Falsify or GTFO. Your every whine is evidence for my assertion.

                • Wow. That may be the most bizarrely wrong /. psychoanalysis I've ever seen.

                  Anyway. There's nothing to falsify. You have made an assertion, and when challenged to justify it, come out with ... more assertions. I don't know what your line of work is, but in mine, that type of argumentation doesn't fly.

                  • Nothing to falsify? You expect me to prove that you actually exist? You claimed to be the contradiction, but you can't demonstrate it! I embellish it, and you still can't!

                    Go on, contradict me. Use that training you claim to have. Demonstrate one iota of scientific credibility in the root post of this thread. Why does it interest you? What would be your rationale for moderating it up?

            • Dark matter couples to regular matter only gravitationally, so we know next to nothing about it. For all we know dark matter might couple to itself with its own forces analogous to electromagnetism etc. so that it can "see" itself in ways we cannot. If that were the case and "dark matter life" were possible, it would be on a separate channel of sorts and we wouldn't be able to observe it.

              Or maybe these guys are thinking of "organisms" millions of light years across based on gravitational interactions betwee
          • But I think sane people understand the word fiction pretty well...

      • by E++99 ( 880734 )

        Not really. Our understanding of life is grounded firmly in chemistry and physics, which are literally universal.

        That statement suggests an ignorance of the fundamentals of science. Our understanding of chemistry and physics is indeed used to describe the life we observe on Earth. There is nothing in that understanding that suggests what properties of chemistry or physics might be employed by life off the earth, or how similar or dissimilar it might be to life on the earth.

        We look for water-based life, be

        • But it is irrational to assume that all or most life must be water-based.

          I wouldn't say that. Water's pretty handy when it comes to making stuff. Same with carbon. Read all about it here. [] I'm not saying lifeforms based on something else are verifiably impossible, but if there's life out there, odds are it is water and carbon based. Of course, some electric lifeform or black cloud or whatever could be common outside our little system, but at this point that's even more speculative.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          You can surmise a lot about what's possible elsewhere by what's possible here. Unless there's some other periodic table when you get far enough away, there's not much you can do without carbon. No other element has its propensity to share electrons instead of stealing them; molecules composed of other atoms (like silicon, the most plausible replacement) don't get very complex before they start falling apart. And we see interstellar spectra of complex molecules with C-C and C=C bonds everywhere.

          Water may or
      • Our understanding of life is grounded firmly in chemistry and physics, which are literally universal. You science-fiction wankery is entirely beside the point.

        Our understanding of the life we have observed to date is grounded in a very specific type of chemistry and physics. Sneer at it as "science-fiction wankery" all you want (and really, a phrase like that is a pretty strong indicator that you have nothing useful to say on the topic) but there is nothing in our understanding of chemistry and physics --

        • While yes, you could imagine other forms of biochemistry out there, the fact that we are focusing efforts on forms of life as we know it isn't a lack of imagination, it's just good scientific practice. You work with the data you can get. It just so happens that the most common elements [] in the universe interact in productive ways that we know about based on the liquid state of water, itself comprised of the first and third most common elements in the whole shebang. That's the stuff of science, not fiction

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by beh ( 4759 ) *

        Two issues here - looking for water is a good thing because we KNOW that water is important for a whole lot of lifeforms that we happen to know (i.e. all life on earth).

        What we do NOT know is whether a planet with water will automatically 'produce' life in some form or other.

        Separately, we do not know, whether other chemical compounds can also give rise to life - but in that case, life that isn't based on water and light - both of which are important to the human existence.

        Your 'science-wankery' aside - up

    • Stanislaw Lem said it best (regarding SF). And it was something like this: When we look for alien life far away we are really looking for life similar to us, because we want to extend the boundaries of Earth. The aliens could be a little different from us, so we have something to look up to/down on, but we are only interested in what is basically our mirror. He also said truly alien life would be completely unfathomable. If someone can do a better job quoting him, feel free to correct me.

      I guess there are s

    • If it's that close to a quasar I don't think it's gunna have much in the way of life. At least no life based on water.

    • by wideBlueSkies ( 618979 ) * on Sunday December 21, 2008 @02:42PM (#26192613) Journal

      Anything is possible.

      In very broad terms I'd guess that the folks looking for life would be starting with a baseline of what we know today..or at least what can be extrapolated from what we know today.

      I'm not a PhD, or a scientist by any means. Just a simple software developer. But having a logical thought process I know that in an investigation, you need to start somewhere. And that somewhere is with us, and how we exist.


    • Re:Water means life? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bradbury ( 33372 ) <> on Sunday December 21, 2008 @03:15PM (#26192839) Homepage

      The points here are valid. Robert Freitas wrote a book (Xenology) nearly 30 years ago which explored how other life forms might develop and evolve. I am sure that an even more expansive discussion on the topic could be written now. The "water" phase period for intelligent life forms may well vary, but it is not a requirement for non-water based start-ups (covered in Xenology) or post-water based existences, e.g. Dyson shells or their more sophisticated derivatives (Matrioshka Brains).

      It is a shame that current physicists are using valuable resources to search for "life" within such a limited framework. When we have available concepts of non-water-staged life and post-water-staged life upon which we can draw. It can even be argued that the "water-state" basis of life is a minimal state in the Universe. (Given that Matrioshka Brains have lifetimes that may exceed even those of stars.)

      • by Smauler ( 915644 )

        All ideas about non-water based life is pure speculation. There is absolutely 0 evidence for it. Water based life is fact. The very fact that we cannot produce life in a lab ourselves kind of precludes us from speculating with any authority in which environments life could be created, I think. All we know is that it can be created in water... that's why we focus on water.

        • The parent is right, and certainly not a troll!

          We still don't know all of the details of how life emerged on earth, but it appears to have required some very specific chemistry. Something-like-RNA bases meet the requirements for abiogenesis (a non-biological origin for life):
          * capable of catalyzing it's own reproduction
          * versatile enough to adopt novel catalytic activity and replicate *with the novel activity intact* (by base pairing)
          * produced in fair abundance in the chemistry seen on a young pla

          • Peptide nucleic acid (PNA) has been hypothesized as an alternative to RNA for abiogenesis. Personally I don't buy it; the RNA world hypothesis looks more plausible. We don't find PNA in any living thing anywhere.
      • by vinlud ( 230623 ) *

        It is a shame that current physicists are using valuable resources to search for "life" within such a limited framework.

        Its a shame somebody gets modded up that much on /. for such an unconstructive post, not giving any idea how the very scarce resources of our physicists should be assigned and what your framework in such a quest would be.

        • by bradbury ( 33372 )

          There are at least 3 ways to search for Matrioshka Brains.

          1. Mid-to-Far IR surveys. But they require liquid He cooling and don't last very long. The last good survey that was done was with the IRAS satellite in 1983. I first started to look at that data about 7 years ago but had to set it aside for more pressing priorities. Richard Carrigan, is a Physicist at Fermilab and has recently done the work of going through the data and has some interesting candidates [1]. But he is searching for Dyson Shells (

      • Since the referenced text was not publicly distributed until recently, this link might be helpful for anyone interested in it: []
      • It is a shame that current physicists are using valuable resources to search for "life" within such a limited framework. When we have available concepts of non-water-staged life and post-water-staged life upon which we can draw.

        We have available concepts of exotic forms of life, yes. Speculation on paper. Science fiction. Who knows, they might work out. On the other hand, we have a working example of water-based life. We know that plan works.

        If exotic life exists in the Galaxy, what should we be looking

    • by Haoie ( 1277294 )

      That's as limited as our perception of the universe gets.

      We can only describe [and ascribe] life in terms of what we can experience.

  • You might wonder why TFA calls a 100m-radio telescope 'giant'. That's because the radio telescope Effelsberg [] is fully steerable and was/nearly is the largest such telescope.

    It's also a pretty cool sight when you drive through this quaint hilly region and suddenly come across this friggin' huge satellite dish. (Pic in German version of article gives better overview.)

    • It's also difficult to make such a dish that's suitably strong; the American one built in the 1950s collapsed in 1988. Here's a photo [].
  • If you were paying any attention at all in high school chemistry, you know that hydrogen and oxygen like each other quite a lot. Next we'll be getting all excited because we found table salt at interstellar distances.
    • Finding table salt would be a huge step in our understanding of the universe. Not only would finding an actual table be indicative of intelligent life, but finding the salt in those little glass bottles would be frankly amazing.

    • by E++99 ( 880734 )

      Well, if it's iodized table salt, that would be something.

    • To be honest, that in itself is probably worthy of notice. It is not a self-evident truth that all the laws of physics work exactly the same throughout the entire universe. There have, for example, been quite a few theories that have postulated that some of the fundamental constants may vary over space and/or time.

      Therefore, just the confirmation that chemistry actually does seem work the same 11 billion years ago on the other side of the known universe is certainly not worthless knowledge. It may also have

  • The radio frequency emitted by the water molecules was Doppler shifted by the expansion of the Universe from 22.2 GHz to 6.1 GHz.

    Okay, this is what I've never understood. We're sitting here on Earth and we see through our telescopes an electromagnetic wave at frequency X. If you're told, "Actually the galaxy that emitted that wave is moving away from us at Y km/s." Then I get how you can use that to figure out the original "real" frequency of that wave... But if the only information you have here on Earth i

    • IANAP, but I guess the answer is hydrogen. You can pretty much count on it, whereever you look. You know the hydrogen spectrum, which is like fingerprint, without Doppler shift, so if you see a distorted version, you can determine the distortion, i.e. Doppler shift. When you know this, you can transform the distorted signal into undistorted information, and then recognise water and what have you.
      • I forgot: So it's like a known plaintext attack: Detected spectrum=encrypted message, redshift=encryption algorithm, known plaintext=hydrogen spectrum in laboratory/inertial frame of reference, full spectrum in lab=plaintext
        • That's a pretty good analogy really. Also, your encryption algorithm is (original frequency) x z.

          I think I'm on to something here, I'm going to enter that SHA-3 competition

          • Excellent. Let me contribute the abstract for your paper: Imagine two unseen cars in a race are moving towards you. You recognise the unmistakeable sound of a Porsche, even when it's doppler-shifted. Now you can calculate what the other car must sound like when you drive beside it.
    • Because the universe is expanding in all directions at the same rate, the further away something is, the greater its relative velocity away from you. []
      • Because the universe is expanding in all directions at the same rate, the further away something is, the greater its relative velocity away from you.

        Actually, the wikipedia article on the Doppler effect [] says:

        Among the nearby stars, the largest radial velocities with respect to the Sun are +308 km/s (BD-154041, also known as LHS 52, 81.7 light-years away) and -260 km/s (Woolley 9722, also known as Wolf 1106 and LHS 64, 78.2 light-years away). Positive radial velocity means the star is receding from the Sun,

    • It comes from having a few other pieces of information. The main one is: Most of the universe is made of hydrogen.

      We know some stars fall within a certain range of temperatures, we also know of a few events (such as hydrogen falling into a white dwarf or neutron star) that seem to be almost exactly the same, no matter where they happen, and can give an independent estimate of distance based on brightness.

      So the key is, we look for some spectral lines (plural) that are a set fraction apart, or come from a

    • You are right, but the spectral signature of water is not the only thing present in the radio emission from a galaxy. Together with other signatures e.g. Hydrogen, CO etc., it is possible to work out a big picture.

    • I work in this field, so I can answer.

      The first item is how to know what frequency the material emits. We have a laboratory that contains radioastronomy equipment of the same type that is used to detect the signals from space, but it operates on samples in a vacuum chamber in the lab. So the Doppler shift on these samples is zero. We then take a spectrum of the material, noting the main spectral line frequencies.

      The frequency shift to be expected (a function of the object's distance from Earth) is usuall

    • When matter emits electromagnetic radiation, it doesn't emit continuously over all wavelengths. Instead, it emits electromagnetic radiation at only a few frequencies. (This corresponds to the different energy levels of electrons...) For example, one most noticeable bands (and most frequently used to measure the relative velocity of distant objects) is emitted by Hydrogen with a wavelength of 21 cm.

      You can tell how fast something is moving by taking a spectrograph of the light emitted from it and then meas

  • Smile, maser loves u! []

    (That's actually the work of a Dublin graffiti artist, quite a clever one. "maser" stuff is all over Dublin. You need to look through his website [] and Flickr stream [].)

  • World's largest supersoaker?
  • Hydrogen is the most abundant element, and Oxygen isn't far behind, relatively speaking. The two combine easily to form H2O. So it shouldn't be so surprising that we find water everywhere we look, assuming that the physics that works here is the same everywhere else in the universe (and we'd have to throw out most of astrophysics if that weren't true).

    • Much more complex molecules have been discovered in outer space. Indeed water isn't something fascinating compared with these ones []. The cool thing here is about the sensitivity of the hardware, which is able to identify the faint signals from a very distant object.

  • So the water was there 11.5 billion years ago, right? I wonder if any of it, like, evaporated and stuff?
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday December 21, 2008 @02:38PM (#26192589)

    And if they find some phosphoric acid in there, too, we'll get to hear that there be aliens because they already have Cola.

    Water may be a necessity for life (at least the kind we know about), but it is no sign whatsoever that there is any. And at that distance, it doesn't matter for us either because we can't even get people to the next planet in our solar system, much less to the next solar system in our galaxy, so looking at water in some far away galaxy is pretty pointless.

    Let's try to focus here, people. Let's get to Mars. Get something going there. And work from there. There's little use in looking for far away water when we can't even use the one that's just around the corner, universally speaking.

  • We've detected hydrogen and oxygen in a distant galaxy, and they actually combined when given the chance. Surely such a rare event was never suspected before and requires our confirmation. Now go have a beer.

Nondeterminism means never having to say you are wrong.