Soon after LIGO‘s first detection of a black hole-black hole merger, the astronomical community was hinting about a potentially more scientifically exciting event within the interferometer’s grasp: The merging of two neutron stars. When two dark objects coalesce, the product is unsurprisingly dark. Colliding neutron stars on the other hand might emit light of some kind and the collision product need not necessarily be a black hole. More intriguingly, so-called kilonovae resulting from neutron star collisions have been proposed as the actual origin in our universe of many elements heavier than iron, challenging the conventional wisdom of these coming from supernovae.
Here’s a prescient talk by Prof. Brian Metzger of Columbia University and coiner of the term ‘kilonova’ on the consequences of neutron star binary mergers. He discusses their signatures in the gravitational wave record and across the electromagnetic spectrum to their ultimate role in nuclear synthesis. Given at Harvard on 16 March 2017, it is quite accessible for a technical colloquium presentation. A mere five months later on 17 August 2017, LIGO and its European counterpart VIRGO indeed detected the merger of two neutron stars and set of a flurry of observational activity across the globe and in space which confirmed at least qualitatively the predictions by Metzger and his group.
The details are still confusing. For example, we can assume that it takes a long time for two neutron stars to form, presumably from the death as a supernova of each of a large, but not too large, binary pair. These violent events will eject a lot of material into the interstellar medium. The neutron stars then spiral slowly and combine, releasing a lot of neutrons to stick to light elements, transmuting them up the periodic table through the r-process. But, where do these light elements come from if the ejecta from each of the progenitor stars has had a very long time to spread? (*)
Harvard’s Edo Berger has a concise summary of the multimessenger gold rush incited by the event in a special issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters. Many of the papers are free to download. As an aside, I was acquainted with Edo when he was an undergraduate physics student at UCLA while I was a researcher in the same department. I had no idea then he’d become one of the Dukes of Earl of high energy astrophysics.
(*) Addendum 20 April 2019: After a year of futility in not finding an answer to this question, I emailed Prof. Metzger and asked. In a prompt and gracious reply he said that the ejecta from the merging neutron stars create the seed nuclei required for the r-process. There are sufficient protons (10-30%) in the ejecta to form nuclei of mass number ~100 within milliseconds. These then absorb further neutrons within the constraints of beta decay to create very heavy elements within a few seconds. So, it seems that neutron stars aren’t neutrons all the way down!
30 May 2020: New video source; prior channel was deleted.
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