Boffins: Comet Lovejoy is a cosmic booze cruise spewing alcohol across the Solar System

Another bottle of star-donnay, please waiter

Comet Lovejoy

Pic Alcohol is pretty essential to life here on Earth, but for the first time, scientists have found the blessed fluid venting in huge amounts from a comet flying through our Solar System.

Comet Lovejoy swung around our sun for the first time in 8,000 years back in January. Astronomers kept a close eye on it because the sunlight caused chemicals in the offgassing comet to glow at specific microwave frequencies, and the results were quite a shocker.

"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the discovery published October 23 in Science Advances.

Lovejoy was shown to be shedding ethyl alcohol, but the team also spotted glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar, in the comet's tail. Sadly, for those keen on trying a proper Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, the bulk of the comet is water, but there are still serious amounts of booze and sugar onboard the cosmic snowcone.

Stefanie Milam, a coauthor of the paper and a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said the comet could hold clues to how life came to evolve on Earth. Around 3.8 billion years ago the Earth got bombarded with comets and would have been seeded by these complex molecules.

"Life didn't have to start with just simple molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. Instead, life had something that was much more sophisticated on a molecular level," she said.

"We're finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA. These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms."

Scientists have long suspected that life on Earth could have been seeded by comets and the Rosetta probe recently found organic molecules on Comet 67P. In August scientists showed how the act of a comet slamming into a hard surface could fuse organics into longer-chain molecules as well.

"The next step is to see if the organic material being found in comets came from the primordial cloud that formed the solar system or if it was created later on, inside the protoplanetary disk that surrounded the young sun," said Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from the Paris Observatory, a co-author of the paper. ®


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