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Lovejoy Comet Cited For Interstellar Drunkenness, Producing Alcohol

| 24 Oct 2015 20:33
Lovejoy comet

International scientists find that the Lovejoy Comet is producing enough alcohol to start a winery ... and keep it going for some time.

Wine and chocolates. Nice for a romantic evening, or a trek across the stars if you are the Lovejoy Comet.

An international team of scientists has found that the comet, first cataloged in Q2 of last year, is producing an enormous amount of alcohol, confirming for the first time some of the organic material speculated to be given off by these stellar travelers.

"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 discovery published Oct. 23 in Science Advances. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

The comet, observed with the 30-meter diameter radio telescope at Pico Veleta in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain, was recorded in late January when it was closest to the sun and giving of 20 tons of water a second. Sunlight causes molecules to glow at specific microwave frequencies, with each type of molecule giving off a specific frequency. The data gathered from the telescope analyzed several of the frequencies at the same time, which proved valuable since the comet was only observed for a short amount of time.

The organic materials found in comets could have been instrumental in starting life on Earth.

"The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry," said Stefanie Milam of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a co-author on the paper. "During the Late Heavy Bombardment 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. 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."

The next logical 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, another co-author of the paper.

Source: Science Advances, via Phys.org

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