Earth’s water came from super deep space, and it’s older than you think

The water you drink can be older than the sun.

Astronomers announced the first evidence linking water in our solar system to water in the vast expanse of space between the stars, known as the “interstellar medium.” To do this, the scientists were able to take a close look at a young, forming star (a protostar) some 1,305 light-years away, along with the disk of gaseous material forming around it. They discovered that this nascent solar system is not just filled with water; Crucially, this distant water has the same distinctive chemical markers as water in our solar system. It is billions of years old.

“This means that the water in our Solar System formed long before the Sun, planets and comets formed,” Merel van ‘t Hoff, an astronomer at the University of Michigan and co-author of the new research published in Nature(Opens in a new tab)said in a statement(Opens in a new tab). (The sun, a medium-sized star, is 4 billion years old.)

“We already knew that there is a lot of water ice in the interstellar medium,” added van ‘t Hoff. “Our results show that this water was directly incorporated into the Solar System during its formation. This is exciting, as it suggests that other planetary systems should have received large amounts of water as well.”


Scientists discover a mysterious solar system. It’s nothing like ours.

The water circling this distant protostar, called V883 Orionis, contains very similar proportions of hydrogen and a form of hydrogen called deuterium to the water in our solar system. This is a strong chemical fingerprint that shows a close relationship between these disparate waters.

“This is exciting, as it suggests that other planetary systems should also have received large amounts of water.”

In this graphic, the protostar V883 Orionis in the center is surrounded by a “circumstellar disk” of gas and water, the ingredients that will form this solar system.

Detecting evidence that our solar system’s water came from interstellar space has been elusive. But the V883 Orionis protostar finally provided an exciting opportunity. Astronomers use radio telescopes, with giant antenna dishes, to observe the disks of matter that form around protostars. Importantly, they are looking for an area called the “snow line,” where water ice turns to gas. This gives them the best and most detailed H2O information. If this snow line is too close to the star, it becomes impossible to look through the dusty center of the forming solar system. But in V883 Orionis, the snow line is further away, giving researchers a rich view of the water in the developing solar system.

The astronomers used the powerful telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA(Opens in a new tab), located over 16,000 feet in Chile, to view the water around V883 Orionis. These telescopes detect wavelengths of light (long wavelengths of light that we cannot see) from giant clouds in deep interstellar space. “Astronomers can use [this light] to study the chemical and physical conditions in molecular clouds, the dense regions of gas and dust where new stars are born,” explains the European Southern Observatory’s ALMA website. “Often these regions of the Universe are dark and obscured by light visible, but they shine brightly in the millimeter and submillimeter part of the spectrum.”

Some of the ALMA radio antennas observing the deep cosmos.

Some of the ALMA radio antennas observing the deep cosmos.
Credit: Sergio Otarola / ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)

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In the deep cold of interstellar space, water freezes to ice on top of dust particles in these cosmic clouds. Eventually, when this dust collapses and coalesces around a young star, such as V883 Orionis, the water gradually accumulates on comets, asteroids, moons, and planets. In our solar system, for example, some of the moon’s craters are filled with water ice, an expansive ocean pours over Earth, icy comets zoom into our cosmic neighborhood, and deep oceans likely exist beneath the outer layers. frosts from the moons Europa and Enceladus.

And this water, the researchers say, came from many light-years away, in faraway cosmic clouds.

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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