Alcohol And Sugar Molecules Found In Space: Comet Lovejoy Has Happy Hour

First Posted: Oct 25, 2015 11:56 PM EDT

Large amounts of alcohol and sugar were discovered in space after researchers found Comet Lovejoy releasing high levels of ethyl alcohol, which is found in alcoholic drinks. This new finding reveals evidence that comets were possibly a source of complex organic molecules, which are necessary for the emergence of life, according to the team of international researchers.  

"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," said Nicolas Biver, lead author of the study, from the Paris Observatory, France.

The researchers found 21 different types of organic molecules in gas from the comet. Ethyl alcohol and a simple sugar glycolaldehyde were among those molecules, according to a news release.

Comets are frozen leftovers from the formation of stars and planets billions of years ago, and they are quite famous for their large gaseous tails. Scientists are particularly interested in comets, since they believe that comets hold clues to the solar system's beginnings. Comets usually orbit far away from the sun, but due to gravitational disturbances, they sometimes wander closer to the sun, where they heat up and release gases. This enables scientists to study their composition. 

Lovejoy had been classified as one of the brightest and most active comets since Hale-Bopp in 1997. On Jan. 30, Lovejoy passed closest to the sun, where it was releasing water at 20 tons per second, according to the researchers. 

"The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry," said Stefanie Milam, co-author of the study, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"About 3.8 billion years ago, when many comets and asteroids were blasting into Earth and we were getting our first oceans, life didn't have to start with just simple molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen," she added.

"Instead, life had something that was much more sophisticated on a molecular level. We're finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids, the building blocks of proteins or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA," Milam said.

Researchers believe that comets may have had a significant role in the ancient earth, where they delivered organic molecules, which were essential in the  creation of life. Researchers suppose that comets preserve materials from the ancient cloud of gas and that formed the solar system.

The presence of organic molecules in Lovejoy and other comets supports this theory.

The researchers claimed that their next step is to determine whether the organic molecule material came from a primitive cloud that formed the solar system or if it was created later on inside a protoplanetary disk that surrounded the sun.

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