Celestial spirits

This week’s news brought even more on the theme of alcohol research—this time in space!

Lead author Nicolas Biver
Lead author Biver (credit: EPSC, 2015)

As reported in Science Advances, alcohols including ethanol (the kind we drink) were detected in the comet Lovejoy (discovered, in its own remarkable story, by an amateur Australian astronomer in 2011) as it passed near the sun this January. As you might expect, an alcoholic comet represents organic chemistry at work in distant corners of the solar system, and could be evidence for an extraterrestrial origin of biomolecules. Simple sugars and amino acids found on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko upon last fall’s Philae landing carried similar implications in a recent series of Science papers; the results from Lovejoy, among other advances, earned lead author Nicolas Biver the Farinella Prize at this year’s European Planetary Science Congress.

Comet Lovejoy from the ISS
From the ISS (Burbank, 2011)

Although all Earthly booze is produced by biological fermentation—and despite the controversial space bacteria that colonize headlines every few years—it’s unlikely that Lovejoy’s alcohol represents alien microbes at work. That conditions exist in our solar system to nucleate and preserve such a complex molecule may be even more remarkable, and informative to the origins of life.

Ethanol (L) and methanol (R)

This isn’t the first time alcohols have been detected on space’s breath: a cloud of methanol (one carbon smaller than ethanol) spanning 288 billion miles was identified back in 2006 in the W3(OH) region of our galaxy, 6,000 light years away. The Sagittarius B2 dust cloud, 25,000 light years from here, was shown in 2009 to contain both ethanol and ethyl formate, the aromatic element of raspberries (hopefully aliens like their vodka fruity). Alcohol content in distant galaxies has even been used to measure physical constants as precise as the mass of an electron—which, reassuringly, appears reasonably stable over at least the last 7 billion years (evidently Guinness wasn’t the first alcohol distributor in the business of setting standards).

ISS from Atlantis (NASA, 2010)

And in case you missed it this summer (I did), humans have been driving the alcohol content of space even higher. Since its first expedition in 2000, the International Space Station (ISS) has studied the effects of microgravity on slow physical processes (I remember marveling as a kid at my father’s photos of protein crystals grown in orbit). In 2011 Scotland’s Ardbeg distillery asked how gravity might affect the whiskey aging process, sending a small sample of scotch to the ISS for 2½ years; their results, posted last month in white paper and video formats, claim dramatic differences in flavor.

Japanese distiller Suntory sent six new whiskey samples to the ISS this August, so the story of space alcohol may have just begun; though according to Lovejoy, these molecules have long had a home in the stars.

Top photo credit: Mottar, 2013


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