Out with a bang: Explosive neutron star merger captured for the first time in millimeter light

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Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the brightest and most energetic explosions in the Universe, capable of emitting more energy in a matter of seconds than our Sun will emit during its entire lifetime. GRB 211106A belongs to a GRB sub-class known as short-duration gamma-ray bursts. These explosions — which scientists believe are responsible for the creation of the heaviest elements in the Universe, such as platinum and gold — result from the catastrophic merger of binary star systems containing a neutron star. “These mergers occur because of gravitational wave radiation that removes energy from the orbit of the binary stars, causing the stars to spiral in toward each other,” said Tanmoy Laskar, who will soon commence work as an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Utah. “The resulting explosion is accompanied by jets moving at close to the speed of light. When one of these jets is pointed at Earth, we observe a short pulse of gamma-ray radiation or a short-duration GRB.”

A short-duration GRB usually lasts only a few tenths of a second. Scientists then look for an afterglow, an emission of light caused by the interaction of the jets with surrounding gas. Even still, they’re difficult to detect; only half-a-dozen short-duration GRBs have been detected at radio wavelengths, and until now none had been detected in millimeter wavelengths. Laskar, who led the research while an Excellence Fellow at Radboud University in The Netherlands, said that the difficulty is the immense distance to GRBs, and the technological capabilities of telescopes. “Short-duration GRB afterglows are very luminous and energetic. But these explosions take place in distant galaxies which means the light from them can be quite faint for our telescopes on Earth. Before ALMA, millimeter telescopes were not sensitive enough to detect these afterglows.”

Having occurred when the Universe was just 40-percent of its current age, GRB 211106A is no exception. The light from this short-duration gamma-ray burst was so faint that while early X-ray observations with NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory saw the explosion, the host galaxy was undetectable at that wavelength, and scientists weren’t able to determine exactly where the explosion was coming from. “Afterglow light is essential for figuring out which galaxy a burst comes from and for learning more about the burst itself. Initially, when only the X-ray counterpart had been discovered, astronomers thought that this burst might be coming from a nearby galaxy,” said Laskar, adding that a significant amount of dust in the area also obscured the object from detection in optical observations with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Each wavelength added a new dimension to scientists’ understanding of the GRB, and millimeter, in particular, was critical to uncovering the truth about the burst. “The Hubble observations revealed an unchanging field of galaxies. ALMA’s unparalleled sensitivity allowed us to pinpoint the location of the GRB in that field with more precision, and it turned out to be in another faint galaxy, which is further away. That, in turn, means that this short-duration gamma-ray burst is even more powerful than we first thought, making it one of the most luminous and energetic on record,” said Laskar.

Wen-fai Fong, an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University added, “This short gamma-ray burst was the first time we tried to observe such an event with ALMA. Afterglows for short bursts are very difficult to come by, so it was spectacular to catch this event shining so bright. After many years of observing these bursts, this surprising discovery opens up a new area of study, as it motivates us to observe many more of these with ALMA, and other telescope arrays, in the future.”

Joe Pesce, National Science Foundation Program Officer for NRAO/ALMA said, “These observations are fantastic on many levels. They provide more information to help us understand the enigmatic gamma-ray bursts (and neutron-star astrophysics in general), and they demonstrate how important and complementary multi-wavelength observations with space- and ground-based telescopes are in understanding astrophysical phenomena.”

And there’s plenty of work still to be done across multiple wavelengths, both with new GRBs and with GRB 211106A, which could uncover additional surprises about these bursts. “The study of short-duration GRBs requires the rapid coordination of telescopes around the world and in space, operating at all wavelengths,” said Edo Berger, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and researcher at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “In the case of GRB 211106A, we used some of the most powerful telescopes available — ALMA, the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope. With the now-operational James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and future 20-40 meter optical and radio telescopes such as the next generation VLA (ngVLA) we will be able to produce a complete picture of these cataclysmic events and study them at unprecedented distances.”

Laskar added, “With JWST, we can now take a spectrum of the host galaxy and easily know the distance, and in the future, we could also use JWST to capture infrared afterglows and study their chemical composition. With ngVLA, we will be able to study the geometric structure of the afterglows and the star-forming fuel found in their host environments in unprecedented detail. I am excited about these upcoming discoveries in our field.”

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