The media seems to be hung up on the fact that comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) releases the equivalent in alcohol of 500 bottles of wine every second. However, this comet is helping us in a bigger way, understanding how complex molecules made their way to Earth.
Comets are great in that they spend much of their time far away from the Sun, being unaffected by it and well preserved. That is until they occasionally swing by the Sun, where they will burn up a lot of their preserved material. This is a perfect way for us to study the early solar system! On January 30, 2015 Nicholas Biver’s team in the Paris Observatory did just that and published their findings just a couple of days ago.
After studying comet Lovejoy, these astronomers figured out that the comet has 21 different complex organics in the burnt off material from Lovejoy. Two of these have never been found on a comet before, ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde. The abundance of such materials helps support the theory that comets were in fact the ones to bring complex organics needed for life to Earth. In the period of Late Heavy Bombardment, while our solar system was getting settled, many comets struck Earth’s surface bringing the necessary building blocks for life. Many people had thought Earth had to start life with much simpler molecules but now the study on comet Lovejoy’s complex molecules gives a convincing argument that comets had a strong role in developing the Earth we know by bringing much richer more complex structures for life to develop.