Kilonovae are extraordinarily rare. Astronomers think there are only about 10 of them in the Milky Way. But they’re extraordinarily powerful and produce heavy elements like uranium, thorium, and gold.
Usually, astronomers spot them after they’ve merged and emitted powerful gamma-ray bursts (GRBs.) But astronomers using the SMARTS telescope say they’ve spotted a kilonova progenitor for the first time.
In principle, creating a stellar-mass black hole is easy. Simply wait for a large star to reach the end of its life, and watch its core collapse under its own weight. If the core has more mass than 2 – 3 Suns, then it will become a black hole. Smaller than about 2.2 solar masses and it will become a neutron star. Smaller than 1.4 solar masses and it becomes a white dwarf.
Neutron stars are the remnants of massive stars that explode as supernovae at the end of their fusion lives. They’re super-dense cores where all of the protons and electrons are crushed into neutrons by the overpowering gravity of the dead star. They’re the smallest and densest stellar objects, except for black holes, and possibly other arcane, hypothetical objects like quark stars.
When two neutron stars merge, we can detect the resulting gravitational waves. But some aspects of these mergers are poorly-understood. One question surrounds short-lived gamma-ray bursts from these mergers. Previous studies have shown that these bursts may come from the decay of heavy elements produced in a neutron star merger.
A new study strengthens our understanding of these complex mergers and introduces a model that explains the gamma rays.
Astronomers have spotted Strontium in the aftermath of a collision between two neutron stars. This is the first time a heavy element has ever been identified in a kilonova, the explosive aftermath of these types of collisions. The discovery plugs a hole in our understanding of how heavy elements form.