Abstract

The binary neutron star merger GW170817 was the first multi-messenger event observed in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves1,2. The electromagnetic signal began approximately two seconds post-merger with a weak, short burst of gamma rays3, which was followed over the next hours and days by the ultraviolet, optical and near-infrared emission from a radioactively powered kilonova4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Later, non-thermal rising X-ray and radio emission was observed12,13. The low luminosity of the gamma rays and the rising non-thermal flux from the source at late times could indicate that we are outside the opening angle of the beamed relativistic jet. Alternatively, the emission could be arising from a cocoon of material formed from the interaction between a jet and the merger ejecta13,14,15. Here we present late-time optical detections and deep near-infrared limits on the emission from GW170817 at 110 days post-merger. Our new observations are at odds with expectations of late-time emission from kilonova models, being too bright and blue16,17. Instead, the emission arises from the interaction between the relativistic ejecta of GW170817 and the interstellar medium. We show that this emission matches the expectations of a Gaussian-structured relativistic jet, which would have launched a high-luminosity, short gamma-ray burst to an aligned observer. However, other jet structure or cocoon models can also match current data—the future evolution of the afterglow will directly distinguish the origin of the emission.

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Acknowledgements

Based on observations made with the NASA/European Space Agency Hubble Space Telescope, obtained from the data archive at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. under NASA contract NAS 5-26555. These observations are associated with programmes GO 14771 (N.R.T.) and GO 14270 (A.J.L.). We thank the staff at STScI for their excellent support of these observations. A.J.L. acknowledges that this project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no 725246). J.D.L., A.J.L., D.S. and K.W. acknowledge support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) via grant ST/P000495/1. N.R.T., P.O., J.P.O., G.P.L., I.M. and S.K. acknowledge support from STFC. G.P.L. acknowledges partial support from the Royal Astronomical Society and International Astronomical Union grants. J.H. was supported by a VILLUM FONDEN Investigator grant (project number 16599). The Cosmic Dawn Center is funded by the Danish National Research Foundation. A.d.U.P., C.C.T. and Z.C. acknowledge support from the Spanish project AYA 2014-58381-P. Z.C. also acknowledges support from the Juan de la Cierva Incorporación fellowship IJCI-2014-21669. M.I. acknowledges the support from the National Research Foundation of Korea grant, No. 2017R1A3A3001362. S.R. has been supported by the Swedish Research Council (VR) under grant number 2016- 03657_3, by the Swedish National Space Board under grant number Dnr. 107/16 and by the research environment grant ‘Gravitational Radiation and Electromagnetic Astrophysical Transients (GREAT)’ funded by the Swedish Research council (VR) under Dnr 2016-06012. P.A.E. acknowledges United Kingdom Space Agency support. D.J.W. is supported by the the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation under grant number DFF – 7014-00017. G.P.L. thanks A. Higgins and L. Raynard for useful conversations regarding Markov chain Monte Carlo, and G.P.L. and S.K. thank E. Nakar for helpful comments. I.M. thanks J. Granot for useful discussions.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Physics, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

    • J. D. Lyman
    • , A. J. Levan
    • , B. Gompertz
    • , D. Steeghs
    • , E. R. Stanway
    •  & K. Wiersema
  2. Astrophysics Research Institute, LJMU, Liverpool, UK

    • G. P. Lamb
    • , S. Kobayashi
    • , I. A. Steele
    • , C. Copperwheat
    •  & D. A. Perley
  3. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

    • G. P. Lamb
    • , N. R. Tanvir
    • , P. A. Evans
    • , P. O’Brien
    •  & J. P. Osborne
  4. Birmingham Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy and School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK

    • I. Mandel
  5. Monash Centre for Astrophysics, School of Physics and Astronomy, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia

    • I. Mandel
  6. Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

    • J. Hjorth
    • , C. Gall
    •  & A. de Ugarte Postigo
  7. Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD, USA

    • A. S. Fruchter
    •  & T. Kangas
  8. Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC), Granada, Spain

    • Z. Cano
    • , L. Izzo
    • , C. C. Thöne
    •  & A. de Ugarte Postigo
  9. The Cosmic Dawn Center, Copenhagen, Denmark

    • J. P. U. Fynbo
    • , B. Milvang-Jensen
    •  & D. J. Watson
  10. Center for the Exploration of the Origin of the Universe (CEOU), Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea

    • M. Im
  11. Astronomy Program, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea

    • M. Im
  12. Centre for Astrophysics and Cosmology, Science Institute, University of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland

    • P. Jakobsson
  13. INAF, Institute of Space Astrophysics and Cosmic Physics, Bologna, Italy

    • E. Palazzi
    •  & E. Pian
  14. The Oskar Klein Centre, Department of Astronomy, AlbaNova, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

    • S. Rosswog
  15. Anton Pannekoek Institute, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

    • A. Rowlinson
  16. Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

    • S. Schulze
  17. School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

    • P. Sutton
  18. Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

    • R. A. M. J. Wijers

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Contributions

J.D.L. performed the data reduction and analysis and led writing of the manuscript. G.P.L. performed the numerical calculations and wrote text relating to the model. I.M. contributed to theoretical interpretation of the data and provided analytical estimates. A.J.L. and N.R.T. are principal investigators of the HST proposals used to obtain the new data presented and assisted with data analysis and text. S.K. assisted with the development of the model. B.G. and J.H. contributed to the interpretation of the data and performed the phenomenological fits. A.S.F. and T.K. performed the image subtraction test. All authors provided comments and analysis to assist in the writing of the observing proposals and manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. D. Lyman.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figs. 1–2, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary References 1–42

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0511-3

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