With a name like Comet Lovejoy, spreading alcohol into space would only be appropriate.
Scientists recently discovered that the comet, formally known as C/2014 Q2, was releasing ethyl alcohol, the same kind found in drinks, into the atmosphere.
"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," Nicolas Biver, lead author of a paper published on the discovery in Science Advances, said.
It was one of the "brightest and most active" comets since Hale-Bopp in 1997. It passed closest to the sun at the end of January and NASA has been making observations about its composition since. Biver and his colleagues found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.
At that time, the comet was also releasing an astounding 20 tons of water per second. Using a 30-meter (100-foot) diameter radio telescope in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain, they studied the atmosphere around the comet. Despite the fun implications of a comet releasing alcohol, there is also something much more serious at play: this could mean that comets were responsible for some of the complex chemical compounds that founded life on earth.
"The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry," Stefanie Milam of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said. "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."
Here is Comet Lovejoy on February 22, 2015.
Picture of the comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) on 22 February 2015 Credits: Fabrice Noel / NASA