|This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Image credit: NASA/ESA|
Black holes that are active like this one are known as quasars. Known as APM 08279+5255, the black hole at the center is some 20 billion times more massive than our Sun. It also produces the energy of a thousand trillion suns, and early powerhouse in the Universe.
The water exists in the form of water vapor, a gas, around the black hole and its distribution can reveal details about the nature of the quasar. They can determine how the radiation from the quasar is heating the surrounding gas, which, by astronomical standards, is unusually warm and dense. At several hundred light years across, it is one order of magnitude or two denser and about 5 times hotter than water vapor found in a typical galaxy. It is still far from the comfort of Earth's atmosphere though, at a freezing -63 degrees Fahrenheit (-53 Celsius) and 300 trillion times less dense than the Earth's atmosphere.
[How can water that cold be a gas? That is entirely because of the density, since the particles of water are so far spread apart, they do not condense as the would into a solid under higher pressures (like the Earth's atmosphere).]
There is enough gas in this cloud for the black hole to grow about six times its current size. However, it is unclear if it would reach that far, some gas may be ejected from the quasar or form into stars.
The research is partially funded by NASA and the astronomer teams will be having their paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters later this year. You can read a little bit more about it in the NASA release.