Recently I read about comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy).The thing got me amazed was that scientists found it was dumping ethyl alcohol all along its way, at a rate of around 300-500 bottles per second. So I want to ask how common is alcohol in outer space, and how did it form? I usually imagine space as an inert mixture of dry dust and light gases but it turns out there are sometimes alcoholic compounds.

  • $\begingroup$ Atoms love forming into molecules. You'd be surprised at what that "dry dust" is made of in space. People have found examples of PAHs, proto-protiens, and many other organic molecules. $\endgroup$
    – zephyr
    Dec 16 '16 at 21:11

Getting atoms together into molecules requires two basic things - getting the reactants together and them providing the means to overcome the "activation energy" that is due to the mutual repulsion of the electrons that surround them.

Astrophysical chemistry is a rich and complex field of study. Most molecules are produced by a wide variety of processes. For ethanol in solar system objects, a cartoon of the process might be this:

Grains of dust (basic silicates and soot) form in the protosolar nebula; cosmic rays and high energy radiation from the protosun ionise atoms (remove outer electrons), which makes them "sticky"; these ionised atoms are concentrated onto the surfaces of dust grains, increasing their densities to the extent that reactions between them become likely; hydrogen ions are able to hydrogenate carbon and oxygen to produce CH and OH radicals; these then encounter each other in the presence of more hydrogen to form ethanol; dust grains with ethanol are then incorporated into solar system bodies like comets.

But as I said, for any individual ethanol molecule, other pathways are possible.


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