In January of this year, Comet C/2014 Q2, or Lovejoy, passed close to the sun, allowing astronomers here on Earth to observe the organic molecules surrounding the comet. One of those molecules was ethyl alcohol, the same type of alcohol we find in booze. And at one point, researcher Nicolas Biver explained, "We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity."
Biver and his teams explain why it's important to examine comets in a paper detailing their analysis of Lovejoy, published last week in Science Advances. They write:
Comets represent some of the oldest and most primitive material in the solar system, including ices, and are thus our best window into the volatile composition of the solar protoplanetary disk.
The scientists used a 30-meter radio telescope to observe the comet. They say the discovery of alcohol around a comet is unprecedented:
Molecules identified to be present in cometary ices include water, simple hydrocarbons, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen-bearing species, as well as a few COMs, such as ethylene glycol and glycine. We report the detection of 21 molecules in comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), including the first identification of ethyl alcohol (ethanol, C2H5OH) and the simplest monosaccharide sugar glycolaldehyde (CH2OHCHO) in a comet.
The researchers added that the comet also emitted a type of sugar called glycolaldehyde.
Co-author Stefanie Milam said in a statement released by NASA that the findings contribute evidence to theories that comets helped bring life to Earth. "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," she said, adding, "Instead, life had something that was much more sophisticated on a molecular level. 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."
Can't say we're surprised that alcohol was involved in starting life on Earth.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.