Sweet comet is spewing alcohol across space

Posted at 5:42 PM, Oct 25, 2015
By Amanda Barnett


(CNN) — It’s named Comet Lovejoy, and the space rock could certainly make some people on Earth joyful: It’s pumping out as much alcohol as in 500 bottles of wine every second, according to Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory in France.

The discovery marks the first time that ethyl alcohol, the same type in alcoholic beverages, has been observed in a comet.

The comet also is sprinkling out a type of sugar, according to the new observations by Biver, the lead author of a paper that published October 23 in Science Advances.

Biver’s team found 21 organic molecules coming from the comet. NASA said in a news release that the finding “adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life” on Earth.

How did the researchers on Earth determine what was in a comet flying way out in space?

They waited for it to get really, really hot.

That happened on January 30 when Comet Lovejoy made its closest approach to the sun. Sunlight caused molecules in the material flowing off the comet to glow at different frequencies.

The scientists used the 30-meter (almost 100-foot) diameter radio telescope at Pico Veleta in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain to analyze those frequencies and to determine the comet was partly made up of alcohol and sugar.

Comet Lovejoy, formally named C/2014 Q2, was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy in August 2014. At its peak, it was one of the brightest and most active comets since comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. The comet was visible in the night sky earlier this year, but it’s moving away from Earth and is fading from view.