When it comes to planetary formation, water is often one of the trickiest questions scientists find themselves trying to answer. Where is space did it come from, and how on earth did it end up on... well, Earth? It seems we might have the glimmering of a solution, after scientists observed a nascent solar system surrounded by a cloud of water vapour – enough to populate several thousand Earths.
The team from the University of Michigan found this abundant supply a mere 176 light years away, around the star known as TW Hydrae.
“This tells us that the key materials that life needs are present in a system before planets are born,” said Ted Bergin, one of the boffins behind the study.
“We expected this to be the case, but now we know it is because have directly detected it. We can see it.”
Research has previously found water vapour closer to the stars around which solar systems form, but this is the first time they spotted a cloud of vapour in the further out, cooler reaches.
They spotted the vapour using the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared, located on the Herschel Space Observatory.
This same observatory was responsible for the recent finding of water-carrying planet forming comets.
Herschel itself is a program run by the European Space Agency in association with NASA, and the study itself can be found in the most recent edition of Science