Herschel Detected Cool Water Vapor Around Star

Using data from the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have detected for the first time cold water vapor enveloping a dusty disk around a young star. The findings suggest that this disk, which is poised to develop into a solar system, contains great quantities of water, suggesting that water-covered planets like Earth may be common in the universe. According to astronomer Michiel Hogerheijde of Leiden Observatory in The Netherlands observations of this cold vapor indicate enough water exists in the disk to fill thousands of Earth oceans. Hogerheijde and his team made the find using the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory. They trained Herschel on the appropriately named young star  TW Hydrae, which  is located  about  175 light-years  away in the constellation Hydra (the Sea Serpent). 

TW Hydrae is an orange dwarf star, slightly smaller and dimmer than our sun. It’s only about 10 million years old, and is still surrounded by a disk of dust and gas that should one day coalesce to form planets. The frigid, watery haze detected by Hogerheijde and his team is thought to originate from ice-coated grains of dust near the disk’s surface. Ultraviolet light from the star causes some water molecules to break free of this ice, creating a thin layer of gas with a light signature detected by Herschel’s Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared, or HIFI. According to astronomers TW Hydrae and its icy disk may be representative of many other young star systems, providing new insights on how planets with abundant water could form throughout the universe.