If you're planning a really impressive party, consider a comet. Getting there's a challenge, but guests won't need to bring their own alcohol – or sugar. The news comes from a study of Comet Lovejoy, full name C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), published in Science Advances, and may indicate Earth had organic molecules from its start.
Comet Lovejoy is named not for the lugubrious reverend from "The Simpsons," cool as that would be, but for its discoverer. Five comets bear Terry Lovejoy's name, the most famous being C/2011 W3, which miraculously survived passing just 140,000 kilometers (87,000 miles) from the Sun.
While less spectacular, C/2014 Q2 proved a crowd-pleaser in January when visible with the naked eye, as well as a boon for researchers.
While Rosetta has been giving us unprecedented information about 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Lovejoy is a very different beast. Where 67P takes 6.44 years to orbit the Sun, Lovejoy is thought to have last visited the inner solar system 11,500 years ago.
Using the 30-meter (100-foot) telescope at the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique in Sierra Nevada, Spain, Dr. Nicolas Biver of l'Observatoire de Paris studied the radiation from Comet Lovejoy and picked up evidence of ethanol (CH3CH2OH) and the sugar glycoladehyde (HOCH2-CH=O).
Besides its use as a fuel, ethanol is the cause and solution of all our troubles. Glycoladehyde is not a true sugar, but considered a sugar-related molecule. A giant dispenser of alcohol and sugar circling the solar system? Will someone please think of the children?
Eleven years ago, Biver helped discover the presence of ethylene glycol (antifreeze) in comet Hale-Bopp. Both ethanol and glycolaldehyde have been found previously in space, but never before in comets. Nineteen other molecules were detected in the same study, but the rest had been found in other comets.
The failure to previously detect ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde is probably because we have not had the right equipment, not because short period comets lose the chemicals on previous passes by the Sun, Biver told IFLScience. “Methyl alcohol is more volatile than ethyl alcohol, but has been detected in many short period comets. The spacecrafts (Giotto, Deep Space 1, Stardust, Deep Impact) sent to comets did not have the instruments to detect those molecules in the coma of the comets they flew by.”
Biver added that Rosetta has detected something that might be ethanol on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, but other molecules look confusingly similar to its devices.
Its large nucleus and proximity to the Sun have made C/2014 Q2 the second most active comet of the last 30 years, releasing approximately 20 tons of water per second. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, on the other hand, is releasing around 150 kilograms per second (330 pounds per second), Biver said. Hale-Bopp was nine times more active still, but Biver says the instruments used to study it were less sensitive and covered a much smaller part of the spectrum.
Biver added that while most complex organic molecules would be destroyed in a collision with a planet, some might survive, or even react on impact to form more complex molecules.
Comet Lovejoy's attractive green color comes from diatomic carbon. Credit: Ggreybeard via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0