So, something exciting happened in the world of Astronomy and Astrophysics this last week – two groups of scientists and astronomers at CalTech discovered a mass supply of water in the form of water vapor, living at the center of a quasar called APM 08279+5255, about 12 billion light years away. That is a lot of water. That is also a lot of water that just happens to be hanging out in the literal middle of nowhere.
For a little perspective, that water supply is 100,000 times larger than our Sun, and it's 7.2X10+22 miles away. There's about six trillion miles in a light year, and this quasar is about 12 billion light years away. That's 72,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from Earth. So, this being the case, if we start hitchhiking now, we should make it there by – actually we'll never make it there. Not in our lifetimes! At least not until we invent the Event Horizon, but from what I understand they had a bit of trouble with that ship being all possessed and everything.
Now, something to consider is that these things are way, way old when we actually see the light from them. That light is at least 12 billion light years old, which means it took 12 billion light years to get to us. We can measure these things with different kinds of measuring devices that look for the electromagnetic waves that move at faster speeds, like infrared and microwave, that occur "before" the visible light spectrum. Radio waves and microwaves are very long and infrequent, compared to ultraviolet waves, which are very frequent and short. Like this:
Okay – first and foremost, what is a quasar, exactly? Well, honestly we don't really know all there is to know about them, they're so far away and of such mass that obviously all we can do is speculate and theorize. We can observe them with radio telescopes and devices that observe the range of electromagnetic energy between infrared and microwaves (see the Z-Spec gear at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA)) as well as with very large telescopes like Hubble. Generally, what is thought to be happening in a quasar is that a large black hole is consuming a whole lot of material in space – between 10 and 1000 sun masses per year, apparently. That is a whole lot of material that these overweight pigs of black holes turn directly from mass to energy. So, considering we're completely skipping a matter form, something has to happen to the material when it's converted to energy, and that is generally what is referred to as the quasar, or quasi-stellar radio source to the real scientists. Check out this beautiful artist depiction of a quasar doing its thing (and the image at the top of the post is also an artist's depiction):
Beautiful. As the black hole eats all of the mass, electromagnetic energy (which includes visible light) emanates from the quasar. So, quasars are powered by black holes. Make sense? Kinda? In short, a quasar is a large luminous stellar body. It's a monster thing that happens in space, and some of the brightest ones give off more energy than a few trillion of our sun.
Here's another video, this one explains a bit about Einstein's Cross and some of the way that the light form quasars is altered by gravitational forces:
Quasars. Very cool. Now how do we equate the awesomeness of all that water vapor and the incredulous distance between us and it?