Astronomers have discovered large quantities of alcohol and sugar, as well as the presence of complex organic molecules, on the comet Lovejoy. The observations, made by the 30 meter (98 ft) radio telescope at Pico Veleta, Spain, support the theory that comets may have played an important role in the formation of life on Earth.
The vast majority of comets originate either in the Kuiper belt or the Oort cloud, however gravitational disturbances can manipulate the orbits of these enigmatic bodies, causing them to pass relatively close to the Sun.
This inward trip from the far reaches of the solar system allows us to observe a comet's composition from afar, as increasing activity caused by closer proximity to the Sun causes a comet's coma to become much more pronounced.
Each comet essentially serves as a time capsule, allowing us to observe materials as they were during the formative period of our solar system. The arrival of Rosetta and Philae around 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) in August 2014 has revolutionized our understanding of the celestial wanderers, allowing scientists to take detailed readings of the nature and composition of a comet from orbit, and on the surface, for the first time in our history.
Whilst we lack a robotic presence on Lovejoy, telescopic observations of the comet are furthering our knowledge of the remarkable, eclectic and varied nature of the cosmic travellers. Recent studies have revealed the first recorded instance of ethyl alcohol present in a comet's coma, the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages back on Earth.
"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," states lead author of a paper on the findings Nicolas Biver, of the Paris Observatory, France. "The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde – a simple sugar."
Astronomers were able to detect the signature of the alcohol and sugar by targeting Lovejoy with a large radio telescope, and observing for energized particles glowing at specific microwave frequencies.
The presence of organic molecules on Lovejoy further strengthens the theory that ancient comet impacts during the Late Heavy Bombardment played a pivotal role in the emergence of life on Earth by delivering complex organic molecules.
Dominique Bockelée-Morvan, co-author of the paper from Paris Observatory, concludes, "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, inside the protoplanetary disk that surrounded the young sun."
A paper detailing the discovery is available in the journal Science Advances.