Quirks & Quarks

Shaken, Not Stirred: Comet Lovejoy Spews Alcohol

NASA researchers discover a comet on close approach to the Sun ejected a range of chemicals, including a large amount of ethyl alcohol.

Comet ejects alcohol equivalent of 500 bottles of wine a second

Comet Lovejoy on 22 February, 2015 (Fabrice Noel)
When the Comet Lovejoy made its closest approach to the Sun earlier this year, scientists were able to observe it in great detail. That's because Lovejoy began releasing various gases as it melted in the heat of the Sun. The molecules that make up those gases were then identified by specific microwave frequencies, as they are energized by the Sun.

Molecules of water, oxygen, sulphur and hydrocarbons are common to comets. But when scientists, including Dr. Stefanie Milam, a researcher with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, looked at Lovejoy, they found a couple of surprises. One was a type of sugar, but the other had never been seen before in a comet.

Lovejoy was releasing vast quantities of ethyl alcohol - the same type we find in alcoholic beverages - at an estimated rate equivalent to 500 bottles of wine per second. Scientists believe the alcohol, along with the other molecules, are preserved material from the gas and dust that formed the solar system.

Related Links

Paper in Science Advances
- NASA release
- Washington Post story