Sugar and alcohol, how far would we go to get them? Most of us are within walking distance of one or the other, but scientists have discovered a “relatively nearby” source of huge quantities of both. Analysis of comet Lovejoy by the Paris Observatory shows it contains alcohol in the form of ethanol, and sugar in the form of glycolaldehyde. The amount of alcohol being released each second, when the comet is most active, is equal to 500 bottles of wine.
Dirty snowballs – the unappealing description that scientists have traditionally given to comets – suddenly seems inadequate. It is true that comets are mostly ice and dust, only visible to eyes on earth as the sun vaporises the ice to form long trailing clouds.
We are surprised to find sugar and alcohol in space because on earth it takes a plant to make either – green plants to grow our sugar, and manufacturing plants to brew our alcohol. Both are complex processes, photosynthesis evolved over millions of years, and fermentation is a multi-billion dollar industry. For example, fermentation involves living yeast, catalysing the reaction of glucose into ethanol and carbon dioxide.
So are the sweets and booze on Comet Lovejoy being made by little green men? Or does the discovery of alcohol imply that some form of yeast will be found on the comet? Well, just possibly, but there is a far simpler explanation. Atoms of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen that are thrown out by exploding stars, sometimes collide and form organic molecules. Indeed, a decade ago, astronomers at Britain’s famous Jodrell Bank observatory discovered a cloud of methyl alcohol spanning a distance equivalent to 22 million earth diameters. Such organic compounds, produced by random collisions, are pulled together by gravity into comets.
But how do scientists know there is sugar and alcohol on Comet Lovejoy? It’s not because an astronaut has returned overweight and with an enormous hangover. Astronomers use spectroscopy to analyse the light given out by distant objects, knowing that the colours emitted are determined by the chemicals in the object. For example, Helium was actually discovered in space before it was found on earth, since the distinctive colour of the sun was shown in 1868 to be impossible to make with previously known elements.
We still know very little about comets. The very first mission to land a probe on a comet was launched in 2004, with the Philae lander touching down on comet 67/P on 12 November 2014. After a bumpy landing, Philae discovered many things, and identified the presence of organic compounds. Scientists analyzing the Rosetta mission data now say those organic compounds on comet 67/P include alcohol, but they were beaten to publication by the astronomers who have discovered alcohol on comet Lovejoy.
Clearly, the really important scientific question is “what do the sweets and booze on Lovejoy taste like”?
I volunteer to find out, since I’ll be old enough to drink by the time I get there.
I am a 15 year old Londoner, though I’ve lived half my live in Malaysia, Sweden and Bulgaria. I will take A-levels next year, and plan to study Biology, Chemistry, Maths and French. I enjoy dancing, drama and hockey, and I’m very excited when I discover new places. I hope to learn many languages and have a job that includes communicating science.
As I say in my blog, I really would love to be an astronaut, for a decade or two. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll settle for exploring and protecting the planet!