Journal Article

Electromagnetic counterparts of compact object mergers powered by the radioactive decay of <i>r</i>-process nuclei

B. D. Metzger, G. Martínez-Pinedo, S. Darbha, E. Quataert, A. Arcones, D. Kasen, R. Thomas, P. Nugent, I. V. Panov and N. T. Zinner

in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Published on behalf of The Royal Astronomical Society

Volume 406, issue 4, pages 2650-2662
Published in print August 2010 | ISSN: 0035-8711
Published online August 2010 | e-ISSN: 1365-2966 | DOI:
Electromagnetic counterparts of compact object mergers powered by the radioactive decay of r-process nuclei

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The most promising astrophysical sources of kHz gravitational waves (GWs) are the inspiral and merger of binary neutron star(NS)/black hole systems. Maximizing the scientific return of a GW detection will require identifying a coincident electromagnetic (EM) counterpart. One of the most likely sources of isotropic EM emission from compact object mergers is a supernova-like transient powered by the radioactive decay of heavy elements synthesized in ejecta from the merger. We present the first calculations of the optical transients from compact object mergers that self-consistently determine the radioactive heating by means of a nuclear reaction network; using this heating rate, we model the light curve with a one-dimensional Monte Carlo radiation transfer calculation. For an ejecta mass ∼10−2 M (10−3 M) the resulting light-curve peaks on a time-scale ∼1 d at a V-band luminosity νLν∼ 3 × 1041 (1041) erg s−1[MV=−15(−14)]; this corresponds to an effective ‘f’ parameter ∼3 × 10−6 in the Li–Paczynski toy model. We argue that these results are relatively insensitive to uncertainties in the relevant nuclear physics and to the precise early-time dynamics and ejecta composition. Since NS merger transients peak at a luminosity that is a factor of ∼103 higher than a typical nova, we propose naming these events ‘kilo-novae’. Because of the rapid evolution and low luminosity of NS merger transients, EM counterpart searches triggered by GW detections will require close collaboration between the GW and astronomical communities. NS merger transients may also be detectable following a short-duration gamma-ray burst or ‘blindly’ with present or upcoming optical transient surveys. Because the emission produced by NS merger ejecta is powered by the formation of rare r-process elements, current optical transient surveys can directly constrain the unknown origin of the heaviest elements in the Universe.

Keywords: gravitation; nuclear reactions, nucleosynthesis, abundances; binaries: close; gamma-ray burst: general; stars: neutron; supernovae: general

Journal Article.  11521 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Astronomy and Astrophysics

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