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Water May Have been Abundant Only a Billion Years After the Big Bang

First Posted: Apr 29, 2015 09:01 AM EDT

How soon after the Big Bang could water have existed? It may have been pretty early, according to new research. Scientists have examined the chemistry of the early universe and have found that water vapor could have been just as abundant in pockets of space a billion years after the Big Bang as it is today.

"We look at the chemistry within young molecular clouds containing a thousand times less oxygen than our sun," said Avi Loeb, one of the researchers, in a news release. "To our surprise, we found we can get as much water vapor as we see in our own galaxy."

After the Big Bang, water couldn't have existed right away. Water molecules contain oxygen, and oxygen had to be formed by the first stars. In order to learn a bit more about this process, the scientists examined chemical reactions that could lead to the formation of water within the oxygen-poor environment of early molecular clouds.

The first generation of stars are believed to have been massive and short-lived. These stars generated elements, like oxygen, that then spread outward with stellar winds and supernova explosions.

The researchers also found that within molecular clouds and at temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, abundant water could form in the gas phase despite the relative lack of raw materials.

Although the 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.

The findings reveal that water could exist in the gas phase within molecular clouds that formed later generations of stars.

The findings are published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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