Comet Lovejoy is carrying the ingredients for a raging celestial happy hour.
When the frozen comet passed by the sun earlier this year, part of it thawed and started spewing a huge stream of ethyl alcohol like a giant bottle of popped Champagne.
According to NASA, this is the first time astronomers have ever observed a comet carrying ethyl alcohol, or ethanol — the same chemical you’ll find behind a bar.
“We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” Nicolas Biver, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory, said in a press release.
Other than making the comet a potential party venue, the presence of ethyl alcohol has a profound implication: It’s more evidence that comets hold the ingredients that made life on Earth possible.
Astronomers think comets are clumpy, frozen preserves of a giant cloud of gas and dust that formed our solar system billions of years ago. Every once in a while, one of these comets pass close enough to the sun for it to thaw and release a stream of water and chemicals as a tail.
That’s what happened to the comet Lovejoy in January 2015, when astronomers used a giant radio telescope to analyse the tail’s chemical composition. The team found 21 different organic materials in the comet, including ethyl alcohol and sugar, according to their October 23 study in the journal Science Advances.
Organic materials are the building blocks of life, and the astronomers think that comets and asteroids that crashed into early Earth may have delivered them, making it possible for life to arise.
So tracing the ingredients for the origin of life all the way back to comets and asteroids that formed billions of years ago may be possible. The next step, however, is to see if the organic materials like alcohol and sugar the astronomers found were present in the dusty cloud that formed our solar system, or if those organics came into existence after the fact.
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