Comet C/2014 Q2, also known as Comet Lovejoy, made its closest ever approach to the Sun in January this year, allowing astronomers to make observations of the comet’s atmosphere at its brightest.
The surface of the comet heated up as a result of its close proximity to the Sun, allowing Nicolas Biver and his colleagues at the Paris Observatory to use the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM) 30-metre radio telescope in Sierra Nevada, Spain, to examine the emission spectra of the gases released in the process. Different gases emit electromagnetic radiation at different frequencies when energised, allowing their signatures to be uniquely determined.
The analysis revealed 21 organic compounds, the presence of most of which was unremarkable. However, two of the compounds have never before been detected on a comet: glycoaldehyde, a simple sugar molecule, and ethanol, otherwise known as drinking alcohol. Impressively, Lovejoy was releasing the equivalent of “at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity.”
Examining the composition of comets can be informative because they carry relatively pristine samples of material from the early solar system. In fact, comets could be the reason behind life on Earth. Biological organisms could have originated from molecules delivered directly to the planet’s surface, or perhaps from more complex organic compounds synthesised during the comet’s impact with the planet.
According to Fred Goesmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, “we are just at the beginning of detecting complicated molecules in space. It could well turn out that such material is nothing special at all.” Analysis of the composition of comets could help us to figure out why we exist; Lovejoy’s sugary, alcoholic outbursts may be the tip of the iceberg.