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Comet found spewing booze out into space

Fabrice Noel/NASA

Earlier this year, astronomers from the Paris Observatory observed a comet in our Solar System spewing large amounts of ethyl alcohol, the same type found in alcoholic drinks, into space as it passed close by the Sun. The comet — aptly named Comet Lovejoy — spat out the equivalent of "500 bottles of wine every second" when it was most active, according to the researchers. This kind of alcohol has never before been seen coming from a comet. But that’s not the only reason why this finding is important; it can also be used to bolster the idea that comets harbor the kind of complex molecules that are necessary to jumpstart life on planets.

Astronomers observed the comet's atmosphere on January 30th, when Lovejoy reached the point on its orbit at which it’s closest to the sun. When comets get this close to a star, their surfaces glow brighter and heat up, releasing a significant amount of gases that can be observed from Earth. These molecules get excited when the sunlight hits them, and glow at different microwave frequencies depending on their chemical composition. That’s what the scientists used to detect the ethyl alcohol released by Lovejoy; on Earth, telescopes can categorize the different types of molecules based on their microwave signatures. So, along with ethyl alcohol, the scientists detected 21 different organic molecules around Lovejoy, including a type of sugar called glycolaldehyde.

The equivalent of "500 bottles of wine every second."

Space rocks are very old, with many having formed when our galactic neighborhood first got started. It's possible comets contain the same materials from the ancient dust and gas cloud that created our Sun and orbiting planets. So present-day comets may serve as a great snapshot of what comets were carrying during the early days of our Solar System.

That’s why scientists are so interested in comets like Lovejoy; finding organic molecules like this supports the idea that these space rocks jumpstarted life here on Earth by crashing into our planet nearly 4 billion years ago.

The only problem with that idea is confirming exactly when these comets started carrying organic molecules. "The next step is to see if the organic material being found in comets came from the primordial cloud that formed the Solar System or if it was created later on," said study co-author Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from the Paris Observatory. In other words, did Comet Lovejoy get drunk on a properly aged wine or one that wasn't bottle ready.

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