Padova-Asiago Supernova Group
Highlights

Spectroscopic identification of r-process nucleosynthesis in a double neutron star merger
Pian, E. et al. 2017, Nature doi:1038/nature24298
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The merger of two neutron stars is predicted to give rise to three major detectable phenomena: a short burst of gamma-rays, a gravitational wave signal, and a transient optical/near-infrared source powered by the synthesis of large amounts of very heavy elements via rapid neutron capture (the r-process). Such transients, named "macronovae" or "kilonovae", are believed to be centres of production of rare elements such as gold and platinum. The most compelling evidence so far for a kilonova was a very faint near-infrared rebrightening in the afterglow of a short gamma-ray burst at z = 0.356, although findings indicating bluer events have been reported. Here we report the spectral identification and describe the physical properties of a bright kilonova associated with the gravitational wave source GW 170817 and gamma-ray burst GRB 170817A associated with a galaxy at a distance of 40 Mpc from Earth. Using a series of spectra from ground-based observatories covering the wavelength range from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared, we find that the kilonova is characterized by rapidly expanding ejecta with spectral features similar to those predicted by current models. The ejecta is optically thick early on, with a velocity of about 0.2 times light speed, and reaches a radius of about 50 astronomical units in only 1.5 days. As the ejecta expands, broad absorption-like lines appear on the spectral continuum indicating atomic species produced by nucleosynthesis that occurs in the post-merger fast-moving dynamical ejecta and in two slower (0.05 times light speed) wind regions. Comparison with spectral models suggests that the merger ejected 0.03-0.05 solar masses of material, including high-opacity lanthanides. 99