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Astronomers Observe Water Forming in The Orion Nebula

By Frank D. Roylance
The Baltimore Sun

The water that gushes from your taps may have been created billions of years ago during the birth of a new star.

A team of scientists using the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory reports it has detected just such a water factory in a gas cloud 1,500 light years from Earth in the Orion Nebula.

The vast cloud is producing so much water vapor that, condensed to liquid form, it could fill all the Earth's oceans every 24 minutes, said David Neufeld, a member of the team and a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

And the process is likely to continue for thousands of years.

"Although we have only detected this sort of phenomenon in a single source, it seems very likely it's a widespread phenomenon," Neufeld said. "I think it's quite plausible that this could have implications for the origins of water in our solar system."

The findings are being reported in the April 20 edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters by Neufeld; Cornell's Martin Harwit, the lead author; Gary Melnick of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Michael Kaufman, now with NASA's Ames Research Center.

Stephen P. Maran, press officer for the American Astronomical Society, called the findings "another terrific result for the Infrared Space Observatory. They have been picking up water wherever they look," most recently on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

He said astronomers will now be eager to look for signs of water in other places where star formation is going on.

Water is composed of atoms of hydrogen - the most common element in the universe - and oxygen, which is created in the nuclear furnaces of stars.

Astronomers have predicted for 30 years that water vapor would be created in regions of interstellar space where atoms of oxygen and hydrogen are thrown together at speeds high enough to raise their temperature to 200 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

In fact, radio telescopes have hinted at the presence of water in such gas clouds for years. But scientists have been unable to measure it because the infrared radiation the water vapor generates is swamped by the signal from water in the Earth's own atmosphere.

Scientists needed to get their infrared detectors above the atmosphere, into outer space.