Recent Blast was Probably a Neutron Star Collision

Swift’s X-Ray telescope captured this image of GRB050509b embedded in the diffuse X-ray emission associated with the galaxy cluster. Image credit: NASA. Click to enlarge.
Two billion years and 25 days ago, an event destined to be a watershed in the astronomical community took place in a distant galaxy ? a blast of gamma rays lasting a mere a thirtieth of a second. The aptly-named Swift observatory ‘saw’ the gammas with its Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) instrument, worked out roughly where they were coming from, and turned its X-ray and UV telescopes. The international GCN (GRB Coordinates Network) lit up with notices from observatories all over the world (and out in space), reporting what they found when they looked there. Data came in from Namibia, the Canaries, continental US, Chile, India, the Netherlands, and above all Hawaii. The world?s leading optical telescopes, the VLT, the Kecks, Gemini, Subaru, all swung into action; the electromagnetic spectrum was covered from extremely high energy gammas to the radio.

And all for what? A few dozen gamma rays plus about a dozen X-rays? Astronomers have known for over a decade that gamma ray bursts (GRBs) come in two different kinds: ?long-soft? and ?short-hard?. GRB050509b was a short-hard one. It lasted about 30 ms, its gamma spectrum had more ?hard? gammas than ?soft? ones, and it was the first time an X-ray afterglow was ever detected.

Astronomers have been “desperately seeking afterglows” for years. These are the X-ray, UV, optical, IR, and radio waves streaming from the site of the GRB, after the gamma radiation tails off. Because we can pinpoint the source of these more accurately than the GRBs themselves, finding afterglows is the first step to working out what they are.

Before GRB050509b, astronomers were leaning towards the theory that long-soft GRBs are core-collapse supernovae (collapsars). While there have been dozens of theoretical papers published on what short-hard GRBs might be, only three scenarios seemed to fit the gamma ray data ? the merger (or collision) of a neutron star with another (or a black hole), a giant flare from a magnetar (a ?starquake? in an intensely magnetic neutron star), or some variation on the collapsar theme.

Now the first of what will likely be hundreds of papers on GRB050509b has been submitted for publication. The 28 authors conclude that “there is now observational support for the hypothesis that short-hard bursts arise during the merger of a compact binary (two neutron stars, or a neutron star and a black hole).”

The key to the researchers? conclusion is the ‘localization’ of the X-ray afterglow.

Swift?s X-ray telescope detected X-rays coming from the same region of the sky as the gammas; after some sleuthing to tie the apparent X-ray position to the astronomers? coordinate system (RA and Dec), the Swift XRT team determined that the afterglow came from a circle about 15″ (arc seconds) across, whose centre is about 10″ from the heart of an elliptical galaxy (which now has the memorable name G1), itself a member of a rich cluster of galaxies bathed in X-rays. How did they know it was an afterglow? Because it faded; the diffuse X-ray glow from clusters doesn?t do that.

And despite looking very carefully, no other electromagnetic afterglow was detected.

So now our 28 astronomers had to work out whether G1?s suburbs is where the stardeath happened, or somewhere else; what is the ?host?, in astronomer-speak.

Modern astronomy makes heavy use of statistics; to be sure they don?t have a fluke, researchers normally want lots and lots of examples. In this case, the only stats the paper?s authors could do is a calculation ? how likely is it that a short-hard GRB (assuming that such are stardeath events) would occur ?near? an elliptical galaxy, in a rich cluster, just by chance? Many different ?how likely? questions were asked; the answers in all cases are, ?not very likely?. However, no one is ruling out bad luck.

Our researchers could now turn to the various theoretical models of short-hard GRBs, and of GRB afterglows, to see how well the observational data fit the theoretical expectations, assuming the GRB went off in G1.

Good news (#1) is that the afterglow data matches well: short-hard GRBs release a lot less (gamma) energy than do long-soft ones (so afterglows from short-hard GRBs should be fainter; the gamma energy is an indicator of the energy used to power the afterglow). Better yet, since what the burst debris smashes into determines how bright the afterglow will be, the faint GRB050509b afterglow is just what you?d expect if it happened in the rarified gas of the interstellar medium of an elliptical (collapsar afterglows are bright in part because they happen in the messy remnants of the gas-dust clouds from which they were born a mere few million years earlier).

The second piece of good news is that, no trace of recent star formation could be found in G1, thus pretty much ruling out a collapsar as the progenitor. Why? Because collapsars are very young stars, and so cannot have moved far from their birthplace before their death. Further, the debris of even the wimpiest collapsar supernova would have been visible, several days afterwards.

What about a giant flare from a magnetar? This cannot be strongly ruled out for GRB050509b, but a magnetar in a galaxy like G1 is not very likely, and GRB050509b was a thousand times brighter than the strongest magnetar flare we?ve seen, to date.

That leaves the merger of a neutron star binary (or NS-BH binary). Where would we find such a binary, just ready to merge? They certainly could be found in the suburbs of spiral galaxies, or in globular clusters, but giant elliptical galaxies like G1 is mostly where.

So it?s ?case closed?? Not quite. ?Other progenitor models are still viable, and additional rapidly localized bursts from the Swift mission will undoubtedly help to further clarify the progenitor picture.?

Could GRB050509b be a stardeath in a much more distant galaxy? Maybe one of the dozen or so fuzzy blobs (a much more distant galaxy cluster? such chance alignments are very common) in or near the X-ray afterglow? Perhaps this will be discussed in future papers on GRB050509b.

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