Sagittarius B2 is a colossal cloud of dust (spanning across 150 light years) that is located at about 390 light years from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, and surrounds a newborn star. The complicated internal structure of Sagittarius B2 is divided into three main parts- north (N), middle (M) and south (S). This cloud is several million times the mass of our sun, 20-40 times denser than the typical molecular cloud, and is particularly fascinating to humankind because it is known to taste of raspberries and smell of rum!
The last distinguishing feature of Sagittarius B2 can be attributed to the presence of vast amounts of ethyl formate. Ethyl formate is an ester (a chemical compound derived from an acid) which is responsible for imparting this mammoth cloud with the essence of raspberries and rum. Therefore, this astronomical wonder contains many billions of liters of alcohol, including even the potable ethanol. Sagittarius B2’s composition was studied by astronomers who used the IRAM telescope in Spain. In fact, as published in an article by Mental Floss, this celestial cloud “contains enough ethyl alcohol to fill 400 trillion, trillion pints of beer. To down that much alcohol, every person on earth would have to drink 300,000 pints each day—for one billion years”. So, Sagittarius B2 presents a huge puzzle for scientists and astronomers—how did these tremendous reserves of space alcohol come into existence? There have been some speculations regarding this miraculous formation—the methanol (or ethyl alcohol) attaches itself to the dust particles created due to star formation; as the dust migrates toward the star, the clinging alcohol heats up, separates from the core, and becomes an independent gas. These molecules have been detected since they absorb the incoming radiation of the nearby stars, which then re-emit the imbibed energy at different angles. Since different compounds reflect the rays at varying angles, scientists were able to confirm that an assortment of around fifty types of molecules exist in Sagittarius B2, one of which is propyl cyanide (propyl cyanide is a lethal compound). All of these compounds were found in response to astronomers’ search for amino acids, which would then indicate the presence or potential existence of life.
Another reason that this stellar phenomenon is so fascinating is because it could be an antecedent or forerunner to life. As written in Message to Eagle, “clouds like this one are the raw material for new stars and planets. […] complex chemistry builds prebiotic molecules in such clouds long before the stars and planets are formed”. So, the presence of this alcoholic cloud could lead scientists to find the roots of biological life in the cosmos. As said by Barry Turner, a staff scientist at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, “The discovery of vinyl alcohol is significant […] It gives us an important tool for understanding the formation of complex organic compounds in interstellar space”. Indeed, Sagittarius B2—or raspberries and rum—could prove to be a gigantic leap in the progress of humankind in the elusive fields of astronomy and astrobiology; hopefully we’ll be more enlightened on this arcane, riveting topic in the near future!