A ‘kilonova’ associated with the short-duration γ-ray burst GRB 130603B

Abstract

Short-duration γ-ray bursts are intense flashes of cosmic γ-rays, lasting less than about two seconds, whose origin is unclear1,2. The favoured hypothesis is that they are produced by a relativistic jet created by the merger of two compact stellar objects (specifically two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole). This is supported by indirect evidence such as the properties of their host galaxies3, but unambiguous confirmation of the model is still lacking. Mergers of this kind are also expected to create significant quantities of neutron-rich radioactive species4,5, whose decay should result in a faint transient, known as a ‘kilonova’, in the days following the burst6,7,8. Indeed, it is speculated that this mechanism may be the predominant source of stable r-process elements in the Universe5,9. Recent calculations suggest that much of the kilonova energy should appear in the near-infrared spectral range, because of the high optical opacity created by these heavy r-process elements10,11,12,13. Here we report optical and near-infrared observations that provide strong evidence for such an event accompanying the short-duration γ-ray burst GRB 130603B. If this, the simplest interpretation of the data, is correct, then it confirms that compact-object mergers are the progenitors of short-duration γ-ray bursts and the sites of significant production of r-process elements. It also suggests that kilonovae offer an alternative, unbeamed electromagnetic signature of the most promising sources for direct detection of gravitational waves.

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Figure 1: HST imaging of the location of GRB 130603B.
Figure 2: Optical, NIR and X-ray light curves of GRB 130603B.

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Acknowledgements

This work was based partly on observations obtained at the Gemini Observatory, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the US National Science Foundation on behalf of the Gemini partnership: the National Science Foundation (United States), the National Research Council (Canada), CONICYT (Chile), the Australian Research Council (Australia), the Ministério da Ciência e Tecnologia (Brazil) and SECYT (Argentina). This work was also partly based on observations made using ESO telescopes at the Paranal Observatory. The UKIRT is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre on behalf of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. The UKIRT/WFCAM data used here were pipeline-processed by the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit. The HST data were obtained under programme GO/DD 13497. We thank the Space Telescope Science Institute director for approving Director's Discretionary Time observations, and staff, particularly D. Taylor, for expediting them. The Dark Cosmology Centre is funded by the Danish National Research Foundation. This work made use of data supplied by the UK Swift Science Data Centre at the University of Leicester. We acknowledge discussions with A. de Ugarte Postigo and D. Watson.

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N.R.T. led the writing of the HST proposal, performed the final photometric analysis of the HST data and took primary responsibility for writing the text of the paper. A.J.L. contributed to all aspects of the observations and planning, particularly the collation of photometry and the creation of Fig. 2. A.S.F. and R.A.H. took primary responsibility for the detailed planning of the observations and the processing of the HST imaging. J.H., K.W. and R.L.T. contributed to planning the observing and analysis strategies. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to N. R. Tanvir.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Tanvir, N., Levan, A., Fruchter, A. et al. A ‘kilonova’ associated with the short-duration γ-ray burst GRB 130603B. Nature 500, 547–549 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12505

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