After examining the chemistry of the early universe, scientists have discovered that water vapor could have been just as abundant in pockets of space a billion years after the Big Bang as it is today.
Water could not have existed right away after the Big Bang. This is because water molecules contain oxygen and oxygen had to be formed in the first stars. Then, that oxygen had to disperse and unite with hydrogen in significant amounts in order for water to be created.
“We looked at the chemistry within young molecular clouds containing a thousand times less oxygen than our Sun. To our surprise, we found we can get as much water vapor as we see in our own galaxy,” said Astrophysicist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
A team of scientists examined the chemical reactions that could lead to the formation of water within the oxygen-poor environment of early molecular clouds. They found that at temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, abundant water could form in the gas phase despite the relative lack of raw materials.
“These temperatures are likely because the universe then was warmer than today and the gas was unable to cool effectively,” said Shmuel Bialy, lead author and PhD student at Tel Aviv University.
The first generation of stars are believed to have been massive and short-lived. These stars generated elements like oxygen, which then spread outward via stellar winds and supernova explosions.
Although ultraviolet light from stars would break apart water molecules, after hundreds of millions of years, an equilibrium could be reached between water formation and destruction. Scientists found that equilibrium to be similar to levels of water vapor seen in the local universe.
This study calculated how much water could exist in the gas phase within molecular clouds that will form later generations of stars and planets. However, it doesn’t address how much water would exist in ice form or what fraction of all the water might actually be incorporated into newly forming planetary systems.
The findings are published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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