Don’t Drink in Space

Water is great. It nourishes, relieves thirst, cools one off after a run, and is used in countless unhealthy beverages. What’s notable about those particular uses is that they are specific to Earth, for this is the only place in the universe where water is known to occur as a liquid on the surface. Now, that doesn’t preclude the other types of water, namely solid and gaseous, from being found anywhere else. It turns out that they are, and water as a molecule is extremely abundant in space and even, as you’ll find out if you don’t fall asleep, in the farthest reaches of space.

 I Always Thought Marvin Looked Like a Diver

By now, you all probably know that water ice is found on Mars. Just observing the planet, if you are lucky enough to own a telescope, reveals the white north polar ice cap, which is composed of frozen water with a lot more frozen carbon dioxide. It is thought that water once flowed on the ruddy surface of the planet but now it clearly does not. Bummer.

Water ice, however, does occur in other places, such as Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Triton. Pluto, Ceres, comets, and many small bodies in the outer solar system. Fortunately, water ice has a number of interesting properties that enable scientists to detect its presence and make inferences about the makeup and formation of celestial bodies.

Sinking Moons

Recent news from the Saturn system indicates that Enceladus, one of the ringed planet’s larger moons, may possess a liquid water ocean below its surface. It was the properties of water that enabled scientists to even think of presenting their findings. Enceladus’s surface is mostly water ice, which gives it a high albedo. Enceladus’ core, like almost everything else in the Solar System, is made of a dense, hard material known as rock. The different things on Enceladus obviously have different densities, with rock being very dense and the ice not being very dense at all. Note that we have not mentioned what is between the ice and core. Things settle based on their densities, as the age-old experiment with oil and water shows. Therefore, there must be some mass of substance denser than ice but less dense than water, and although Enceladus’ interior is heated it is not hot enough to melt rock, so it is not magma. The only other thing that made sense was liquid water, the necessity for known life, and that is what was sent to the presses a couple of weeks ago.

Elmer’s Ice

But now this is just talking about water in space- why not some chemistry? Research done in the past few decades and years indicates that water is found abundantly in the interstellar medium, including in dust clouds. Water has theall-important quality of being polar, and so it can use that property to hold things together. It turns out that water, in its ice form probably, acts as a glue to hold dust grains together. Dust grains are probably one of the most common things in interstellar space and in the appropriately named dust clouds, which also contain interesting things such as organic compounds and sometimes metals. A lot of dust grains held together can form bodies, which under the force of gravity become round and turn into things like planets and their moons. So, we see the very real power of water as being partly responsible for planetary formation (with gravity).

Water Factories in Space

Although one does not realize this frequently, the water found on Earth was not made here. It came from space. This of course leads to the question of how was such an abundant amount of water made in space, when we can barely detect water in space? Well first off, this process takes a very long time to complete, therefore is not noticeable at any moment. It first started with the Big Bang, after which Hydrogen (one of the most abundant elements in the Universe) was created. The Oxygen was produced at the centers of massive stars and dispersed into space by stellar winds or supernova explosions. The Hydrogen eventually reacted with the Oxygen to form water. However, this reaction cannot take place anywhere. The ideal conditions for said reaction are found in places such as star-forming regions, for example, the Orion Nebula. Some of these newly formed water molecules start to travel out into the cold of interstellar space, where they form ice grains. As stated earlier, they will end up in comets or in planets like our own.

It is interesting to note that, the Orion Nebula is also the site of creation of stars. Although, the distance between our own planet and Orion makes it hard to study it, spectroscopy let scientists deduce many properties of the objects emitting the light, even if they can’t see them clearly. This is how the vapors and other elements in the nebula were discovered.

Cloudy With a Chance of Quasars

 The oxygen that is in water is also very important; as it is a very reactive element. It has the ability to form numerous molecules even considering the makeup of molecular clouds, which are mostly hydrogen but with quite a bit of oxygen and some carbon, so we find that the most common simple compounds are water and carbon monoxide/carbon dioxide. It’s not as if water is even a recent development in the very long history of our universe. Scientists have detected enormous clouds of water vapor around quasars, also known as those tiny little galaxy-things that pre-date galaxies and that were present around 12 billion years ago, or less than 2 billion years after the Big Bang. This means water was already coalescing in huge amounts in less time than it took multicellular life to evolve. There also appears to be a black hole involved, to make things more interesting. What’s more, the cloud is relatively hot (as are quasars in general) but not very dense. This provides more evidence for the role of water in the basic formation of familiar matter objects in the universe, meaning it is extremely pervasive. In the search for life elsewhere, this is helpful information.


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