Drinkability: Low.

The largest and most distant source of water in the universe was discovered in 2011. To get to this point, we brought 1000 times the amount of water found in all of Earth’s oceans. And, if we can gather up the water at this source, we will have enough water to make the journey back…100 billion times over.

APM 08279+5255 is a quasar, a feeding supermassive black hole, which gives off as much energy as 1 quadrillion (a thousand trillion) suns. This enormous amount of energy has allowed water vapor to percolate through an area of several light years around the black hole. Observing the spectrum of the water allowed astronomers to not only identify where the water vapor was, but also how massive it was and how hot it was. Surprisingly, at -63°F (-53°C) the gas is five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than we would expect based on typical water vapor in our own galaxy.

The light we see from this galaxy is 12 billion years old. That means, we are glimpsing a galaxy as it was less than 2 billion years after the beginning of the universe. Significantly, it also means that fully-formed water was present in the early universe.

From hydrogen formed 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang to oxygen spewed out by dying stars throughout history. From water vapor in galaxies 12 billion light years away to water masers in galaxies 23 million light years away. From liquid water on planets around other stars to icy water on a planet around our own, water flows, clinks, and blows throughout the history of our universe. All to find its way here. To our Earth, as the basis for all life as we know it.

So, take a sip. Take a deep breath. Take a look around. Because that water came a long way to be here.

About The Author

Madelyn Broome

Madelyn was the 2018 Editor-in-Chief of Innovation, and a former writer and editor for the Space/Physics section. Her piece "Where's the Water?" won the 2019 Gregory T. Pope Prize for Science Writing. She is passionate about science communication and about making science engaging and accessible for people of all ages - though she especially enjoys working to ignite excitement for the sciences in young girls and other underrepresented communities in STEM. When she's not trying to share her enthusiasm for the sciences, she can usually be found exploring, practicing mixed martial arts, archery, lifting, playing soccer, or just generally trying to make up for the dessert she just ate.