The universe is well over one-hundred million centuries old. We humans, barely worthy of a footnote of a footnote in post-Big Bang history, have stared into its blackness in wonder for a mere tens of centuries. Only in the 20th Century, a time that the universe does not even register, humans discovered its depths and began to unlock its secrets. One of those secrets, it happens, was a big ball of booze.
That’s right, there’s alcohol in space!
In 2001, scientists at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s site in Kitt Peak, Arizona used their 12-metre telescope to determine that the giant molecular cloud, Sagittarius B, contained vinyl alcohol, an isomer of acetaldehyde, an organic chemical compound produced by plants on earth and found in such everyday products as coffee and bread.
Scientists remain a bit baffled by how the alcohol actually exists in such vast quantities in space. Firstly, alcohols are complex molecules. It is conceivable that they could be formed in space through random interactions that constantly take place but the sheer quantity of alcohol found in Sagittarius B continues to perplex.
Secondly, the way in which alcohol molecules survive the vacuum remains a mystery. Scientist figure that alcohol molecules gather on dust particles zipping through the universe. The dust particles are then covered by ice. As the ice melts, which occurs when the dust particles get near a heat source such as a star, the alcohol floats away into the molecular cloud. The ice is the critical ingredient in this hypothesis. If it weren’t for the ice, the separation of the dust particle and the alcohol molecule would be too violent for the alcohol molecule to remain intact.
You may think the discovery of vinyl alcohol primarily a fun fact for pub quiz fodder but, in fact, it was rather significant. A representative of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory commented that “it gives us an important tool for understanding the formation of complex organic compounds in interstellar space,” continuing to say that the discovery could “help us better understand how life might arise elsewhere in the Cosmos.” Vinyl alcohol, it turns out, is elemental in the production of organic acids in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Who would have thought that alcohol played such a vital role in the search for extra-terrestrials!
Luckily for aliens flying their space cruisers through the molecular cloud and in need of a zero-gravity pick-me-up, there is plenty of extra-planetary alcohol to go around, about ten billion billion billion litres of it. Sadly, for humans to quaff a cosmic cocktail they’ll have to wait until we figure out the physics behind light speed. Sagittarius B is 26,000 light years from Earth, a touch further than your friendly local pub. And even if we reached the cloud, which sits near the center of our Milky Way galaxy, we would not be able to drink the space spirit as most of its composition is poisonous to humans.
However, if we were to dig deep enough into the alcohol cloud that spans 45 parsecs, or about 147 light years, we would find some ethanol, an alcohol drinkable by humans, mixed within the vinyl alcohol, methanol, carbon monoxide and the approximately 100 other molecules that are hypothesized to live in the nebulosity. This ethanol, according to scientists, plays a part in forming another substance found in the cloud, ethyl formate, a compound that would make for a drink on a space ship more attuned to the trade ships that sailed earthly waters within the past few hundred years: ethyl formate smells like rum. Makes you wonder if space pirates are making a living rum running through the galaxy.