Published: 22 September 2020, 11:24 | By: Sebastian Hollstein
Through experiments and comparisons, scientists at the University of Jena also observed what happens with water when the temperatures increase and the ice leaves the solid body to which it is bound and passes into the gas phase at about 180 Kelvin (-93 degrees Celsius).
“Some water molecules are so strongly bound to the silicate that they remain on the surface or inside dust particles,” says Potapov. “We suspect that such ‘trapped water’ also exists on or in dust particles in space. At least that is what is suggested by the comparison between the spectra obtained from the laboratory experiments and those in what is called the diffuse interstellar medium. We found clear indications that trapped water molecules exist there.”
The existence of such solid-state water suggests that complex molecules may also be present on the dust particles in the diffuse interstellar medium. If water is present on such particles, it is not a very long way to complex organic molecules, for example. This is because the dust particles usually consist of carbon, among other things, which, in combination with water and under the influence of ultraviolet radiation such as that found in the environment, promotes the formation of methanol, for example. Organic compounds have already been observed in these regions of the interstellar medium, but until now it has not been known where they originated.
The presence of solid-state water can also answer questions about another element: although we know the amount of oxygen in the interstellar medium, we previously had no information about where exactly around a third of it is located. The new research results suggest that the solid-state water in silicates is a hidden reservoir of oxygen.
In addition, the “trapped water” can help in understanding how the dust accumulates, as it could promote the sticking together of smaller particles to form larger particles. This effect may even work in planet formation. “If we succeed in proving that ‘trapped water’ existed – or could exist – in building blocks of the Earth, there might possibly even be new answers to the question of how water came to Earth,” says Alexey Potapov. But as yet, these are only suppositions that the Jena researchers want to pursue in the future.
 ESA/PACS/SPIRE/Martin Hennemann & Frédérique Motte, Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, CEA/Irfu – CNRS/INSU – Univ. Paris Diderot, France
A. Potapov, J. Bouwman, C. Jäger, Th. Henning (2020): Dust/ice mixing in cold regions and solid-state water in the diffuse interstellar medium, Nature astronomy, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-020-01214-x