The Multi-messenger Picture of a Neutron Star Merger

On August 17 the LIGO/Virgo gravitational wave observatories detected the first binary neutron star merger event (GW170817), a discovery followed by the most ambitious electromagnetic (EM) follow-up campaign ever conducted. A gamma-ray burst (GRB) of short duration and very low luminosity was discovered by the Fermi and INTEGRAL satellites within 2 seconds of the merger. Within 11 hours, a bright but rapidly-fading thermal optical counterpart was discovered in the galaxy NGC 4993 at a distance of only 40 Mpc. The properties of the optical transient match remarkably well predictions for “kilonova” emission powered by the radioactive decay of heavy nuclei synthesized in the expanding merger ejecta by the r-process. The rapid spectral evolution of the kilonova emission to near-infrared wavelengths demonstrates that a portion of the ejecta contains heavy lanthanide nuclei. Two weeks after the merger, rising non-thermal X-ray and radio emission were detected from the position of the optical transient, consistent with delayed synchrotron afterglow radiation from an initially off-axis relativistic jet with the properties consistent with those of (on-axis) cosmological short GRB. I will describe a unified scenario for the range of EM counterparts from GW170817 and their implications for the astrophysical origin of the r-process and the properties of neutron stars. I will preview the upcoming era of multi-messenger astronomy, once Advanced LIGO/Virgo reach design sensitivity and a neutron star merger is detected every few weeks.

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