It seems that giving comet C/2014 Q2 the nickname “Lovejoy” was almost prophetic. Nicolas Biver from the Paris Observatory in France and his team have discovered that the comet was giving out 21 different kinds of organic molecules during the peak of its activity as it got closer to the sun. Among these molecules were a simple sugar glycolaldehyde as well as ethyl alcohol, the very same type found in alcoholic drinks. While that in itself is a pioneering discovery, the overall observation gives a lot more weight to the theory that comets may have had a more substantial role in creating life on Earth.
Comets are often seen as frozen lumps of space material, but that’s only when they orbit around a frigid zone away from the sun. For some reasons, like a disturbance in the force, gravitational, that is, some comets venture closer to the sun. The sun’s heat and light energizes the molecules in the comet, causing the comet to heat up and release gases.
The excited molecules glow at a unique microwave frequencies that can be used to identify their element composition. This was what the team of astronomers did when Comet Lovejoy passed closest to the sun last January 30. It was able to measure 20 tons of water being released by the comet per second, with enough ethyl alcohol that would be the equivalent of 500 wine bottles. Good thing asteroids and planets don’t get drunk.
Aside for the fact that this is the very first time ethyl alcohol was observed in a comet, the discovery helps paint a better picture of how life on Earth may have been formed. Although planets during their birth would have some very basic molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen, more complex, organic molecules like sugar and ethyl alcohol from comets could have helped jumpstart the process as well.
The next step now, according to co-author Dominique Bockelée-Morvan, also from the Paris Observatory, is the determine when the organic molecules on Comet Lovejoy came from. Comets are somewhat like the archivists of star systems, preserving materials from the gas and dust that were present when a solar system is formed. Determining whether the materials on Comet Lovejoy came from the same primordial cloud that birthed our own solar system or much later on could help give clues about the origin of our celestial neighborhood as well as our planet.