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Comet Lovejoy is One Boozy Space Rock

The greenish comet that lit up the sky last January releases as much alcohol as 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) on 12 February 2015 (Fabrice Noel)
smithsonian.com

A green fuzzball of a comet discovered by amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy delighted Earth-bound viewers as it grew bright in the sky during January of 2014 and 2015, timing that earned it a second nickname: The New Year’s Comet. Now, scientists have discovered the comet really deserves the moniker. The icy body’s glowing halo contains a kind of simple sugar and ethyl alcohol—a perfect combination for a cocktail that’s out of this world.

The comet is officially named C/2014 Q2, but for simplicity many call it comet Lovejoy.

"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," says Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory in France, in NASA's press release.

Biver and his colleagues weren’t looking for cocktail ingredients in space, but they were surprised to find ethyl alcohol, the booze in drinks, coming from the comet. It wasn’t the only surprising substance. The comet is releasing total of 21 different carbon-containing compounds, including the alcohol and sugar (glycolaldehyde). These complex organic molecules are the very basic building blocks of life, explains Mike Wall for Space.com

The team published their new research in Science Advances

The fact that these building blocks can be found on a comet is important. Scientists look to comets to get an idea of what the very early solar system was like. Comets formed at that time and provide a relatively undisturbed look into the past because they spend most of their lives out in the far frozen reaches of the solar system. Only when they circle close to the Sun do their molecules heat up, glow and start streaming off as the comet’s tail.

Since some researchers think that early Earth may have been seeded with the ingredients for life, this discovery is exciting. Simple sugars like those spotted in comet Lovejoy provide a base for more complex molecules such as amino acids (the basic building block of proteins) and nucleic acids (which become DNA), one of the paper’s authors Stefanie Milam of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explains in the press release. ​

Comets probably didn’t bring those building blocks to Earth, but icy asteroids with similar compositions may have, reports Christopher Crockett for Science News

No word in the paper however, if the 21 ingredients would make a tasty cocktail.

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