If Comet Lovejoy were a person, it would be the best-ever guest at your next big party. Why? The comet releases the equivalent in alcohol of at least 500 bottles of wine per second into space, along with a simple sugar, researchers found in a study published Friday. The discovery bolsters evidence that suggests comets, which are essentially balls of snow, dirt and ice that are billions of years old, played a role in the creation of organic molecules that led to life in the solar system.
Comet Lovejoy is one of the most active comets in the solar system. It last passed close to Earth in January, when the researchers were able to observe its atmosphere using a large radio telescope of nearly 98.4 feet (30 meters) in diameter located deep in Spain's Sierra Nevada mountains, according to a press release. They were able to see different molecules glowing at different microwave frequencies -- including ethyl alcohol, which is found in alcoholic beverages, and sugar. Neither substance has ever been seen before coming from a comet.
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“The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam, a co-author of the study, who works in the astrochemistry department at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "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," she added
Because comets are thought to contain such ancient material, astronomers look to them for clues about how the solar system was formed. The recent discoveries of Comet Lovejoy's emissions came during an exceptionally rare window of opportunity. The comet will likely not pass near Earth and be visible to the naked eye for another 8,000 years.