The Green Comet Lovejoy –“Organic Molecules Needed for Life Embedded at Birth of Planets”





"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the discovery published Oct. 23 in Science Advances. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet Lovejoy, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

"The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry," said Stefanie Milam of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a co-author on the paper. "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. We're finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA. These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms."

The presence of numerous complex organic molecules (COMs; defined as those containing six or more atoms) around protostars shows that star formation is accompanied by an increase of molecular complexity. These COMs may be part of the material from which planetesimals and, ultimately, planets formed.

Comets represent some of the oldest and most primitive material in the solar system, including ices, and are our best window into the volatile composition of the solar protoplanetary disk. Molecules identified to be present in cometary ices include water, simple hydrocarbons, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen-bearing species, as well as a few COMs, such as ethylene glycol and glycine.

In the new study released this past week, the team led by Biver, reported the detection of the molecules in  Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2), a long-period comet originating from the Oort cloud, which passed its perihelion on 30 January 2015, at 1.290 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. The molecules included the first identification of ethyl alcohol (ethanol, C2H5OH) and the simplest monosaccharide sugar glycolaldehyde in a comet. The high abundance of COMs in cometary ices supports the formation through grain-surface reactions in the solar system protoplanetary disk.

Using the 30-m telescope of the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM), located on Pico Veleta in Spain's Sierra Nevada , the team observed the atmosphere of comet Lovejoy between 13–16 and 23–26 January 2015, when the comet was the brightest and the most productive. The targeted spectral range covered many molecular rotational lines and has been successfully used to identify complex organic molecules in comets and in star-forming regions.

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