Research Article

Illuminating gravitational waves: A concordant picture of photons from a neutron star merger

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Science  22 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6370, pp. 1559-1565
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap9455

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GROWTH observations of GW170817

The gravitational wave event GW170817 was caused by the merger of two neutron stars (see the Introduction by Smith). In three papers, teams associated with the GROWTH (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen) project present their observations of the event at wavelengths from x-rays to radio waves. Evans et al. used space telescopes to detect GW170817 in the ultraviolet and place limits on its x-ray flux, showing that the merger generated a hot explosion known as a blue kilonova. Hallinan et al. describe radio emissions generated as the explosion slammed into the surrounding gas within the host galaxy. Kasliwal et al. present additional observations in the optical and infrared and formulate a model for the event involving a cocoon of material expanding at close to the speed of light, matching the data at all observed wavelengths.

Science, this issue p. 1565, p. 1579, p. 1559; see also p. 1554

Abstract

Merging neutron stars offer an excellent laboratory for simultaneously studying strong-field gravity and matter in extreme environments. We establish the physical association of an electromagnetic counterpart (EM170817) with gravitational waves (GW170817) detected from merging neutron stars. By synthesizing a panchromatic data set, we demonstrate that merging neutron stars are a long-sought production site forging heavy elements by r-process nucleosynthesis. The weak gamma rays seen in EM170817 are dissimilar to classical short gamma-ray bursts with ultrarelativistic jets. Instead, we suggest that breakout of a wide-angle, mildly relativistic cocoon engulfing the jet explains the low-luminosity gamma rays, the high-luminosity ultraviolet-optical-infrared, and the delayed radio and x-ray emission. We posit that all neutron star mergers may lead to a wide-angle cocoon breakout, sometimes accompanied by a successful jet and sometimes by a choked jet.

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