Astronomy

NASA: Sugar and alcohol trail off into space from comet Lovejoy

c2014_q2

C/2014 Q2, Lovejoy (19th January 2015). Image: John Vermette, Wikimedia.

SUGAR AND ALCOHOL have been discovered in the icy furrows of comet Lovejoy. The comet’s orbit is highly elliptical. On a close arc around the sun, blue-green sails of booze and sugar trail off into space.

Lovejoy marks the first time that ethyl alcohol (or ethanol), the same type we use in drinks here on Earth, has been found on a comet. The discovery also adds to the evidence that falling comets may have provided the original complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life.

Data on C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) was included in NASA’s public access research portal, launched in August this year.

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, lead author of a paper on the discovery.

The comet’s journey began in the Oort cloud, an enormous haze of icy planetesimals in the nether, nether regions of our solar system—between 50,000 and 200,000 times further from the sun than Earth.

Lovejoy’s ‘dirty snowball’ (the solid core) is thought to measure 500 metres in diameter.

The comet follows an eccentric orbit around the sun, tracing a long, slender oval. The perihelion (closest point to the sun) was reached in January last year. By the heat of the sun, swathes of colourful gas were shed into space.

Using spectrometry and a 30 m telescope in Sierra Nevada, the research team matched colours to the chemical fingerprints of 21 different organic molecules, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

The result definitely promotes the idea that comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, a co-author on the paper.

During the Late Heavy Bombardment about 3.8 billion years ago, when many comets and asteroids were blasting into Earth and we were getting our first oceans, 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.

On Earth, wherever there’s life, there’s water. But discoveries like Lovejoy are suggesting more and more that comets delivering sugar and alcohol gave us the biomolecular incentive we really needed to start living.

And with celestial bodies out there covered in drink, just think of the possibilities for space travel. Our spacesuits and broken shards of beer and wine like alien bottles that would glitter under sky’s turn of blue-green ribbons, so you lean back and watch and sip from the booze comet, slowly passing planet Earth and thinking about all those great bars back home.

Beam me down, Scotty.

Like space and sweeties? You’ll love the Lapsus Facebook page.

Fallen into a black hole? No sweat. Here’s A Lapsus guide to surviving a black hole.

Holiday destination: The triple sunset of HD 131399Ab.

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