"Long before it's in the papers"
October 23, 2015


Comet detected dumping alcohol into space

Oct. 23, 2005
Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
and World Science staff

Com­et Love­joy lived up to its name by re­leas­ing large amounts of al­co­hol as well as a type of sug­ar in­to space, ac­cord­ing to new ob­serva­t­ions. 

The find­ing marks the first time eth­yl al­co­hol, the same type in al­co­holic bev­er­ages, has been de­tected in a com­et, sci­en­tists said. It al­so adds to the ev­i­dence that com­ets could have been a source of the com­plex or­gan­ic mol­e­cules nec­es­sary for the emer­gence of life.

Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) on Feb. 22, 2015. (Credit: Fabrice Noel)

“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 of the Par­is Ob­serv­a­to­ry, France, lead au­thor of a pa­pe­r on the find­ing pub­lished Oct. 23 in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vanc­es.

His team found 21 dif­fer­ent or­gan­ic mol­e­cules in gas from the com­et, in­clud­ing eth­yl al­co­hol and gly­co­lalde­hyde, a sim­ple sug­ar.

Com­ets are fro­zen rem­nants from the forma­t­ion of our so­lar sys­tem. Sci­en­tists are in­ter­est­ed in them be­cause they’re fairly pris­tine and thus hold clues to how the so­lar sys­tem was made. Oc­ca­sion­ally a com­et come close to the Sun. There it heats up and re­leases gas­es, let­ting sci­en­tists de­ter­mine its make­up.

Com­et Love­joy, for­mally cat­a­logued as C/2014 Q2, was one of the bright­est and most ac­tive com­ets since com­et Hale-Bopp in 1997. Love­joy passed clos­est to the sun on Jan. 30, when it was al­so re­leas­ing 20 tons of wa­ter per sec­ond. The team ob­served the at­mos­phere of the com­et around this time when it was bright­est and most ac­tive. They saw a glow of mi­cro­wave radia­t­ion from the com­et us­ing the 30-meter (al­most 100-foot) wide ra­di­o tel­e­scope at Pico Ve­le­ta in the Si­er­ra Ne­vada Moun­tains of Spain.

Sun­light en­er­gizes mol­e­cules in the com­et’s at­mos­phere, caus­ing them to glow at spe­cif­ic fre­quen­cies, or “col­ors,” of mi­cro­wave light. Cha­rac­ter­istic fre­quen­cies for each kind of mol­e­cule re­veal its iden­tity.

Some re­search­ers think com­et im­pacts on an­cient Earth de­liv­ered a supply of or­gan­ic mol­e­cules that could have helped cre­ate life. Dis­cov­ery of com­plex or­gan­ic mol­e­cules in Love­joy and oth­ers sup­ports this idea, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

It “defi­nitely pro­motes the idea the com­ets car­ry very com­plex chem­istry,” said Stef­a­nie Milam of NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter in Green­belt, Md., a co-au­thor of the pa­pe­r. 

About 3.8 bil­lion years ago, she said, “when many com­ets and as­ter­oids were blast­ing in­to Earth and we were get­ting our first oceans,” a pe­riod called the Late Heavy Bom­bard­ment, “life did­n’t have to start with just sim­ple mol­e­cules like wa­ter, car­bon mon­ox­ide, and ni­tro­gen.”

“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. These can start form­ing much eas­i­er than be­gin­ning with mol­e­cules with only two or three atoms.”

In Ju­ly, the Eu­ro­pe­an Space Agen­cy re­ported that the Phi­lae lan­der from its Ro­set­ta space­craft in or­bit around com­et 67P/Chu­r­yu­mov-Ge­rasi­menko de­tected 16 or­gan­ic com­pounds as it fell to the com­et and bounced around. 

Ac­cord­ing to the agen­cy, some of the com­pounds de­tected play key roles in the crea­t­ion of ami­no acids, nu­cle­obases, and sug­ars—ingredients of life—from sim­pler build­ing blocks.

As­tro­no­mers think com­ets pre­serve ma­te­ri­al from the an­cient cloud of gas and dust that formed the so­lar sys­tem. Ex­plod­ing stars, called supe­rnovae, and the winds from red gi­ant stars near the end of their lives pro­duce vast clouds of gas and dust. These even­tu­ally be­come new stars, and plan­ets.

The clouds con­tain count­less dust grains. Car­bon di­ox­ide, wa­ter, and oth­er gas­es form a lay­er of frost on the sur­face of these grains, just as frost forms on car win­dows dur­ing cold, hu­mid nights, Milam ex­plained. Radia­t­ion in space pow­ers chem­i­cal re­ac­tions in this frost lay­er to pro­duce com­plex or­gan­ic mol­e­cules. The icy grains be­come part of com­ets and as­ter­oids, some of which hit young plan­ets like an­cient Earth­—de­liv­ering the or­gan­ic mol­e­cules there.

“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,” said Dom­i­nique Bocke­lée-Mor­van from Par­is Ob­serv­a­to­ry, a co-au­thor of the pa­per.

* * *

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Comet Lovejoy lived up to its name by releasing large amounts of alcohol as well as a type of sugar into space, according to new observations. The finding marks the first time ethyl alcohol, the same type in alcoholic beverages, has been detected in a comet, scientists said. It also adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life. “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 of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the finding published Oct. 23 in the journal Science Advances. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar. Comets are frozen remnants from the formation of our solar system. Scientists are interested in them because they are relatively pristine and therefore hold clues to how the solar system was made. Occasionally a comet come close to the sun, where it heats up and releases gases, letting scientists determine its makeup. Comet Lovejoy, formally catalogued as C/2014 Q2, was one of the brightest and most active comets since comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Lovejoy passed closest to the sun on January 30, when it was also releasing 20 tons of water per second. The team observed the atmosphere of the comet around this time when it was brightest and most active. They saw a glow of microwave radiation from the comet using the 30-meter (almost 100-foot) wide radio telescope at Pico Veleta in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain. Sunlight energizes molecules in the comet’s atmosphere, causing them to glow at specific frequencies, or “colors,” of microwave light. Each kind of molecule glows at specific, signature frequencies, allowing the team to identify it with detectors on the telescope. Some researchers think comet impacts on ancient Earth delivered a supply of organic molecules that could have helped create life. Discovery of complex organic molecules in Lovejoy and others supports this idea, the investigators said. It “definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a co-author of the paper. About 3.8 billion years ago, she said, “when many comets and asteroids were blasting into Earth and we were getting our first oceans,” a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment, “life didn’t have to start with just simple molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen.” “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. These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms.” In July, the European Space Agency reported that the Philae lander from its Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko detected 16 organic compounds as it fell to the comet and bounced around. According to the agency, some of the compounds detected play key roles in the creation of amino acids, nucleobases, and sugars—ingredients of life—from simpler building blocks. Astronomers think comets preserve material from the ancient cloud of gas and dust that formed the solar system. Exploding stars, called supernovae, and the winds from red giant stars near the end of their lives produce vast clouds of gas and dust. These eventually become new stars, and planets. The clouds contain countless dust grains. Carbon dioxide, water, and other gases form a layer of frost on the surface of these grains, just as frost forms on car windows during cold, humid nights, Milam explained. Radiation in space powers chemical reactions in this frost layer to produce complex organic molecules. The icy grains become part of comets and asteroids, some of which hit young planets like ancient Earth—delivering the organic molecules there. “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,” said Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from Paris Observatory, a co-author of the paper.