'Happy Hour' Comet Leaves Trail of Alcohol and Sugar Across Solar System

ESTHER CASTILLEJO

If there's a party going on in outer space, you may want to have it on comet Lovejoy, which has earned the nickname of the "happy hour" comet because it's leaving behind a trail of alcohol and sugar in its journey through the solar system, according to scientists.

Formally known as C/2014 Q2, Lovejoy released 20 tons of water per second when it passed close to the sun on Jan. 30, according to a study published by a team including scientists from NASA and several European agencies. In January, the team observed the comet's atmosphere and the glow coming from it to determine what elements were present in the water.

Ethyl alcohol, the same found in alcoholic beverages, and glycoaldehyde, a simple sugar, were found, according to the study, making this the first time that these complex organic compounds were observed in a comet.

"At the time of the peak activity, the comet was releasing the equivalent to 500 bottles of wine per second," Darek Lis, one of the team's researchers, told ABC News from Paris, saying that only when comets are close to the sun, do they evaporate and release materials, making them visible.


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Alcohol and sugar were just two of the 21 organic molecules the team found in Lovejoy. Researchers also found formaldehyde and other poisonous elements.

"You have alcohol and sugar, so that can lead to a 'happy hour' name, but I would not recommend anyone drink this water," Lis said.

The discovery adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the organic molecules needed for the emergence of life, Lis said. Comets are believed to be frozen remnants from the formation of the solar system.

"This is the very starting chapter of the development of Earth," the scientist said.

Lovejoy is one of the most active comets -- meaning it spews the most material -- since the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. It's also one of the brightest.

Stefanie Milam, a NASA scientist involved in the observation of the comet, said the science involved in deciphering Lovejoy's composition may be more spectacular than the comet itself.

"The fact that we can detect new molecules in a 'normal' comet now is significant for us," Milam told ABC News from South Africa. "Detecting biological molecules in a comets means that the material that formed our solar system also formed other stars and it’s the same material."