Comet Lovejoy spreads alcohol and sugar as it passes through the Solar System, it has recently been revealed.
The study was published on Friday, October 23, in the Journal Science Advances. It was led by a team of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, from Greenbelt, Maryland.
The experts analyzed the icy Solar System body by employing a 30-meter telescope situated on the Veleta peak, in the Spanish Sierra Nevada.
The space object’s trajectory was followed as it passed closest to the Sun, on January 30, and it was possible to observe the clouds of gas released by the comet upon heating up and thawing.
Experts then conducted an analysis of microwave frequencies of molecules from those clouds, and determined that this newly identified celestial body is one of the brightest and most active comets ever since Hale-Bopp, which flew nearest to the Sun on April 1, 1997.
Upon studying Lovejoy, it was also discovered that this object had expelled 21 types of organic molecules, including formaldehyde (a dangerous compound, known as a carcinogen), ethyl alcohol (just like the one found in alcoholic drinks) and glycolaldehyde (a type of sugar).
Basically, every second, the icy body, officially known as C/2014 Q2, had left a 20-ton trail of sugary alcohol behind it during its peak activity, the equivalent of 500 bottles of wine poured in space.
The findings are highly surprising, given that it’s the first time when researchers have identified the presence of ethyl alcohol in a comet.
Methyl alcohol, which isn’t fit for consumption, as well as some smaller quantities of ethyl alcohol, had only been encountered in space clouds, in a region called W3(OH) and situated around 6,500 light years away.
“These detections suggest that comet chemistry is far more complex than we anticipated”, explained astrochemist Stefanie Milam, one of the study’s co-authors.
The importance of the findings related to the “happy hour” comet also lies in the fact that they might give us some clues regarding life’s origins on Earth. That is because these types of space bodies are known to be remnants from the beginnings of our solar system.
It may be that one of the comets or asteroids that struck our planet during the Late Heavy Bombardment which occurred approximately 3.8 billion years ago actually brought with it complex organic molecules, such as alcohols and sugars.
Therefore, it appears that prior theories which had hypothesized that life began with simple nitrogren, carbon monoxide and water may have to be revised.
In fact, life’s beginnings might have been much more elaborate and sophisticated than that, with multiple carbon molecules such as amino acids (which form the basis of proteins) and nucleobases (which are essential components of DNA) serving as building blocks.
Lead author Nicolas Biver, of the Paris Observatory in France, alongside his colleagues are now conducting follow-up research in order to see if they would find such composite molecules in other newly discovered comets as well.
The team of researchers will then attempt to identify even more complex organic compounds, in order to gain further insight into the origins of life.
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