Abstract

The merger of two neutron stars is predicted to give rise to three major detectable phenomena: a short burst of γ-rays, a gravitational-wave signal, and a transient optical–near-infrared source powered by the synthesis of large amounts of very heavy elements via rapid neutron capture (the r-process)1,2,3. Such transients, named ‘macronovae’ or ‘kilonovae’4,5,6,7, are believed to be centres of production of rare elements such as gold and platinum8. The most compelling evidence so far for a kilonova was a very faint near-infrared rebrightening in the afterglow of a short γ-ray burst9,10 at redshift z = 0.356, although findings indicating bluer events have been reported11. Here we report the spectral identification and describe the physical properties of a bright kilonova associated with the gravitational-wave source12 GW170817 and γ-ray burst13,14 GRB 170817A associated with a galaxy at a distance of 40 megaparsecs from Earth. Using a series of spectra from ground-based observatories covering the wavelength range from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared, we find that the kilonova is characterized by rapidly expanding ejecta with spectral features similar to those predicted by current models15,16. The ejecta is optically thick early on, with a velocity of about 0.2 times light speed, and reaches a radius of about 50 astronomical units in only 1.5 days. As the ejecta expands, broad absorption-like lines appear on the spectral continuum, indicating atomic species produced by nucleosynthesis that occurs in the post-merger fast-moving dynamical ejecta and in two slower (0.05 times light speed) wind regions. Comparison with spectral models suggests that the merger ejected 0.03 to 0.05 solar masses of material, including high-opacity lanthanides.

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Acknowledgements

This work is based on observations made with the ESO telescopes at the Paranal Observatory under programmes ID 099.D-0382 (Principal Investigator (PI): E. Pian), 099.D-0622 (PI: P.D’A.), 099.D-0191 (PI: A. Grado) and with the REM telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory under programme ID 35020 (PI: S. Campana). Gemini observatory data were obtained under programme GS-2017B-DD-1 (PI: L. P. Singer). We thank the Gemini Observatory for performing these observations, the ESO Director General for allocating discretionary time and the ESO operation staff for support. We thank D. Fugazza for technical support with operating the REM telescope remotely and REM telescope director E. Molinari. We acknowledge INAF for supporting the project ‘Gravitational Wave Astronomy with the first detections of adLIGO and adVirgo experiments—GRAWITA’ (PI: E.B.) and support from ASI grant I/004/11/3. J.H. was supported by a VILLUM FONDEN Investigator grant (project number 16599). M.M.K. acknowledges support from the GROWTH (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen) project funded by the National Science Foundation under PIRE grant number 1545949.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. INAF, Institute of Space Astrophysics and Cosmic Physics, Via Gobetti 101, I-40129 Bologna, Italy

    • E. Pian
    • , L. Nicastro
    • , E. Palazzi
    • , A. Rossi
    • , L. Amati
    • , A. Bulgarelli
    • , M. Dadina
    • , G. De Cesare
    • , E. Maiorano
    • , N. Masetti
    •  & D. Vergani
  2. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, Via E. Bianchi 46, I-23807 Merate, Italy

    • P. D’Avanzo
    • , S. Campana
    • , S. Covino
    • , G. Ghirlanda
    • , G. Ghisellini
    • , A. Melandri
    • , O. S. Salafia
    • , M. G. Bernardini
    • , L. Nava
    • , A. Pescalli
    • , G. Tagliaferri
    •  & S. D. Vergani
  3. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, Vicolo dell’Osservatorio 5, I-35122 Padova, Italy

    • S. Benetti
    • , E. Cappellaro
    • , L. Tomasella
    • , R. Ciolfi
    • , M. Mapelli
    • , M. Spera
    •  & M. Turatto
  4. Gran Sasso Science Institute, Viale F. Crispi 7, L’Aquila, Italy

    • M. Branchesi
  5. INFN, Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, I-67100 L’Aquila, Italy

    • M. Branchesi
  6. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Via di Frascati 33, I-00078 Monteporzio Catone, Italy

    • E. Brocato
    • , V. D’Elia
    • , S. Piranomonte
    • , L. A. Antonelli
    • , S. Ascenzi
    • , P. Casella
    • , A. Di Paola
    • , G. Giuffrida
    • , A. Giunta
    • , G. L. Israel
    • , M. Lisi
    • , L. Pulone
    • , L. Stella
    •  & V. Testa
  7. Space Science Data Center, ASI, Via del Politecnico, 00133 Roma, Italy

    • V. D’Elia
  8. Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Juliane Maries Vej 30, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

    • J. P. U. Fynbo
    • , J. Hjorth
    • , D. Malesani
    • , J. Selsing
    •  & D. Watson
  9. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte, salita Moiariello 16, I-80131 Napoli, Italy

    • F. Getman
    • , A. Grado
    • , L. Limatola
    • , M. Capaccioli
    •  & P. Schipani
  10. Università degli Studi di Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Dipartimento di Scienze Pure e Applicate, Piazza Repubblica 13, I-61029 Urbino, Italy

    • G. Greco
    •  & G. Stratta
  11. INFN, Sezione di Firenze, I-50019 Sesto Fiorentino, Italy

    • G. Greco
    •  & G. Stratta
  12. Astronomy, Physics, and Statistics Institute of Sciences (APSIS) and Department of Physics, The George Washington University, Corcoran Hall, Washington DC 20052, USA

    • C. Kouveliotou
  13. Department of Physics, University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK

    • A. Levan
  14. Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool Science Park, IC2, 146 Brownlow Hill, Liverpool L3 5RF, UK

    • P. A. Mazzali
    • , C. M. Copperwheat
    •  & D. Perley
  15. Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 1, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany

    • P. A. Mazzali
  16. European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2, D-85748 Garching bei München, Germany

    • P. Møller
  17. Dipartimento di Fisica ‘G. Occhialini’, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, Piazza della Scienza 3, I-20126 Milano, Italy

    • O. S. Salafia
  18. National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan

    • M. Tanaka
  19. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

    • N. R. Tanvir
  20. Department of Astronomy and Physics, Padova University, Padova, Italy

    • S. Yang
  21. Department of Astronomy, University of California, Davis, California, USA

    • S. Yang
  22. Dipartimento di Fisica, Università di Roma La Sapienza, Piazzale Aldo Moro 2, I-00185 Rome, Italy

    • S. Ascenzi
  23. Università di Roma Tor Vergata, Via della Ricerca Scientifica 1, I-00133 Roma, Italy

    • S. Ascenzi
  24. Laboratoire Univers et Particules de Montpellier, Université Montpellier, CNRS/IN2P3, Montpellier, France

    • M. G. Bernardini
  25. ARTEMIS (UCA, CNRS, OCA), Boulevard de l’Observatoire, CS 34229, F-06304 Nice Cedex 4, France

    • M. Boër
  26. INAF — Osservatorio Astronomico di Catania, Via S. Sofia 78, I-95123 Catania, Italy

    • F. Bufano
  27. Department of Physics, University of Naples Federico II, Corso Umberto I 40, 80138 Napoli, Italy

    • M. Capaccioli
  28. Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia (CSIC), Glorieta de la Astronomia, E-18008 Granada, Spain

    • A. J. Castro-Tirado
  29. APC, Université Paris Diderot, CNRS/IN2P3, CEA/Irfu, Observatoire de Paris, Sorbonne Paris Cité, France

    • E. Chassande-Mottin
  30. INFN-TIFPA, Trento Institute for Fundamental Physics and Applications, Via Sommarive 14, I-38123 Trento, Italy

    • R. Ciolfi
  31. Key Laboratory of Dark Matter and Space Astronomy, Purple Mountain Observatory, Chinese Academy of Science, Nanjing 210008, China

    • Y. Z. Fan
    •  & Z.-P. Jin
  32. University of Virgin Islands, 2 John Brewer’s Bay, St Thomas, Virgin Islands 00802, USA

    • B. Gendre
  33. INAF — Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Largo Enrico Fermi 5, I-50125 Florence, Italy

    • L. K. Hunt
  34. Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • M. M. Kasliwal
  35. Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg, Sternwarte 5, D-07778 Tautenburg, Germany

    • S. Klose
  36. University of Trieste and INFN Trieste, I-34127 Trieste, Italy

    • F. Longo
  37. Institute for Astrophysics and Particle Physics, University of Innsbruck, Technikerstrasse 25/8, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

    • M. Mapelli
  38. Departamento de Ciencias Fisicas, Universidad Andrés Bello, Fernández Concha 700, Las Condes, Santiago, Chile

    • N. Masetti
  39. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste, Via G.B. Tiepolo 11, I-34143 Trieste, Italy

    • L. Nava
  40. Scuola Normale Superiore, Piazza dei Cavalieri 7, I-56126 Pisa, Italy

    • B. Patricelli
    • , M. Razzano
    •  & A. Stamerra
  41. Università degli Studi dell’Insubria, via Valleggio 11, I-22100 Como, Italy

    • A. Pescalli
  42. Racah Institute of Physics, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91904, Israel

    • T. Piran
  43. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari, Via della Scienza 5, I-09047 Selargius, Italy

    • A. Possenti
  44. INAF, Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica di Milano, via E. Bassini 15, I-20133 Milano, Italy

    • R. Salvaterra
  45. INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Torino, Pino Torinese, Italy

    • A. Stamerra
  46. NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • E. Troja
  47. GEPI, Observatoire de Paris, PSL Research University, CNRS, Place Jules Janssen, 92190 Meudon, France

    • S. D. Vergani

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Contributions

E. Pian and P.D’A. coordinated the work. J.S. reduced all the X-shooter spectra presented in Fig. 2 and wrote the relevant sections. M.T. developed the kilonova spectral models. E.C. assisted with the spectral analysis. P.A.M. linked the spectral observations with kilonova theory, coordinated their theoretical interpretation, matched the synthetic with observed spectra (Fig. 3), and wrote the corresponding parts of the paper. S. Campana coordinated the REM observations. S. Covino, A. Grado and A.M. reduced and analysed the optical photometry data (Fig. 1). M.M.K. provided the Gemini spectrum. D.M. assisted with early observation planning. G. Ghirlanda, G. Ghisellini and O.S.S. wrote the section on the off-beam jet (with contributions from L.A., M.G.B., Y.Z.F., Z.-P.J., B.P., T.P. and A.S.). D.W. assisted with the analysis of spectra using thermal models and with writing the paper. E.B. was the PI of the GRAvitational Wave Inaf TeAm (GRAWITA), which works on gravitational-wave electromagnetic follow-up programmes at ESO and other telescopes in Italy and the Canary Islands. M.B. liaised between the GRAWITA and LIGO-Virgo collaborations. A. Grado coordinated the ESO-VST observations. L.L. and F.G. developed the pipeline to reduce the VST data. N.R.T. and A.L. assisted with near-infrared data calibration issues. J.P.U.F., J.H. and C.K. helped write the paper and provided short-GRB expertise. L. Nicastro supervised the data flow and handling. S.P. and V.D. contributed to the data reduction and analysis of the X-shooter spectra. E. Palazzi, A.R., G.S. and G. Greco participated in the organization of the observations and image analysis and provided specific input for photometry calibration. L.T., S.Y. and S.B. contributed to the data analysis, with particular reference to interstellar medium spectral features. P.M. assisted with issues related to ESO policies and observation planning. All GRAWITA members contributed to several phases of the work, from the preparation of proposals, coordination with the LIGO–Virgo collaborations and activation of approved programmes at many facilities to data acquisition, reduction, analysis, interpretation and presentation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to E. Pian.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks R. Chevalier, C. Miller and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature24298

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  • Prospects for observing and localizing gravitational-wave transients with Advanced LIGO, Advanced Virgo and KAGRA

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