‘Comet Lovejoy’: Unique comet that releases alcohol, sugar into space

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Meteor shower
A meteor streaks across the sky in the early morning as people watching during the Perseid meteor shower in Ramon Carter near the town of Mitzpe Ramon, southern Israel, August 13, 2015. Reuters/Amir Cohen

An international team has recently marked the first discovery of a comet releasing ethyl alcohol into space, which has been found to be similar to alcoholic beverages on Earth. The comet, named Lovejoy, releases large amounts of alcohol and a type of sugar into space, which adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules significant for the development of life.

Lovejoy has been observed releasing alcohol equivalent to at least 500 bottles of wine per second, according to Nicolas Biver, lead author of the report from the Paris Observatory in France. Aside from ethyl alcohol, the comet was also releasing 21 different organic molecules in gas, including a simple sugar known as glycolaldehyde.

According to NASA, a gravitational disturbance occasionally delivers a comet near the sun, which causes it to heat up and release gases. The process allows scientists to identify the composition of the comet and the gases it emits.

The observation, published on Oct. 23 in the journal Science Advances, states that Lovejoy has travelled closest to the sun on Jan. 30, 2015. The comet has been first observed to release 20 tonnes of water per second during the time.

Comet Lovejoy, previously known as C/2014 Q2 by scientists, was one of the most active and brightest comets since the observation of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. Lovejoy is currently being observed through a nearly 100-foot diameter radio telescope located at Pico Veleta, Sierra Nevada Mountains in Spain.

The researchers are observing the microwave glow coming from Lovejoy, which is caused by the sunlight. Every kind of molecule from the comet glows at specific, signature frequencies, which can be identified by the team through detectors in the telescope.

Comets are described as frozen remains that come from the formation of the solar system. Most scientists are looking into comets, as they believe the space objects could offer clues about how the solar system was formed.

Some experts also think that comets could have delivered a supply of organic molecules on ancient Earth, which helped the development of early life on the planet. The complex organic molecules discovered in Lovejoy and other comets support the hypothesis that comets and asteroids that blasted into Earth about 3.8 billion years ago could have initiated the formation of oceans and life, according to Stefanie Milam, a member of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland and co-author on the report.

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