Discovery of Alcohol on Comet Lovejoy Could Point to the Origin of Life

The chunk of icy debris produces up to 500 bottles worth of ethyl alcohol per day.

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Oct 24 2015, 5:36pm

Image: John Vermette / Wikimedia Commons

Comet Lovejoy is sweeping between Earth and Mars right now, sending off spectacular views before disappearing into the cosmic abyss. But it seems the comet is leaving behind a cosmic gift in its wake: complex sugars, organic molecules, and good ol' fashioned alcohol.

In a paper published in Science Advances on Friday, astronomers from the Paris Observatory report that the comet spews out the equivalent of 500 bottles of wine every day in chains of ethyl alcohol, a.k.a, the kind in your liquor cabinet. The comet also produces glycolaldehyde, a simple organic compound closely related to sugars. This is the first time either has been observed on a comet. A total of 21 organic compounds were found in the spectra of the comet.

Image: NASA

Comets are the icy debris from the formation of the solar system, and cometary bombardments may have seeded early Earth with the chemicals necessary for life. The theory that comets are responsible for water on Earth has been upended by Caltech astronomers, according to NASA. The presence of organic molecules on comets has been shown time and time again, including on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the comet the European Space Agency's Philae lander made its home.

While this is the first time researchers found ethyl alcohol on a comet, it's been spotted in space before. Around 26,000 light years away, there's a vast cloud of pure alcohol, larger than our solar system according to a discovery by the NRAO. It's located in Sagittarius B, a 150 light-year cloud of gas near the center of the solar system.

Discovered just last year, comet C/2014 Q2 (or Comet Lovejoy) has baffled amateur and professional astronomers on its long journey over the ecliptic of the solar system. Discovered by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in 2014, the comet has an astounding 8,000 year orbital period, making an arc far over the plain of planetary orbits.