Raise a glass to the booze-spewing Comet Lovejoy

The distinctive green comet is releasing a large amount of alcohol into space, although probably not anything you'd actually want to drink.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

Comet Lovejoy, also known as C/2014 Q2, has been having a bit of a party as it continues on its elliptical orbit around the solar system. Researchers have observed it releasing large amounts of ethanol, the same type of alcohol found in terrestrial alcoholic beverages, as well as a type of sugar called glycoaldehyde.

"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 lead author Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory in France. Biver's paper has been published online in the journal Science Advances.

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Comet Lovejoy, photographed in January 2015.

John Vermette

This marks the first time that ethyl alcohol and sugar have been found on a comet, and adds to the mounting body of evidence that comets could be carriers for the organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life. One hypothesis suggests that life on Earth began with molecules delivered by comets.

"The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry," said co-author Stefanie Milam of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"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. We're finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics... These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms."

Comet Lovejoy is not the first comet on which organic molecules have been found. In July, the European Space Agency revealed that Rosetta had found 16 organic compounds on Comet 67P/Chyuyumov-Gerasimenko. Researchers have also found methyl alcohol, or methanol, in space. In 2006, researchers in the UK announced the discovery of a methyl alcohol cloud spanning 463 billion kilometres (288 billion miles).

It is worth noting, in case you didn't know, that methyl alcohol is highly toxic to humans, so don't get ready to leave just yet.

Astronomers believe that comets preserve material from the protoplanetary disc of dust and gas that coalesced into the solar system 4.6 billion years ago (give or take). A star is created when a cloud of dust and gas collapses under its own weight. As this cloud rotates around the forming star, it flattens out. Some of the material falls into the star and some of it accumulates into planets.

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Frozen carbon dioxide, water and other frozen gases coat dust grains. Radiation in space triggers a chemical reaction in this frost layer, creating complex organic molecules. These molecules are then incorporated into comets, which in turn, the hypothesis asserts, crash into young planets. If the conditions are right, life could emerge.

"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 disc that surrounded the young sun," said co-author Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from Paris Observatory.

Comet Lovejoy is one of five comets that bear the name of their discoverer, Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. This particular Comet Lovejoy was discovered in 2014, and rapidly gained notoriety for its rather fetching green hue, caused by the emission from diatomic carbon (C2) in its coma. It was visible to the naked eye from December 2014 to January 2015. It last visited the solar system some 11,500 years ago, and isn't expected to return for another 8,000.