Letter | Published:

Superluminal motion of a relativistic jet in the neutron-star merger GW170817

Naturevolume 561pages355359 (2018) | Download Citation


The binary neutron-star merger GW1708171 was accompanied by radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum2 and localized2 to the galaxy NGC 4993 at a distance3 of about 41 megaparsecs from Earth. The radio and X-ray afterglows of GW170817 exhibited delayed onset4,5,6,7, a gradual increase8 in the emission with time (proportional to t0.8) to a peak about 150 days after the merger event9, followed by a relatively rapid decline9,10. So far, various models have been proposed to explain the afterglow emission, including a choked-jet cocoon4,8,11,12,13 and a successful-jet cocoon4,8,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18 (also called a structured jet). However, the observational data have remained inconclusive10,15,19,20 as to whether GW170817 launched a successful relativistic jet. Here we report radio observations using very long-baseline interferometry. We find that the compact radio source associated with GW170817 exhibits superluminal apparent motion between 75 days and 230 days after the merger event. This measurement breaks the degeneracy between the choked- and successful-jet cocoon models and indicates that, although the early-time radio emission was powered by a wide-angle outflow8 (a cocoon), the late-time emission was most probably dominated by an energetic and narrowly collimated jet (with an opening angle of less than five degrees) and observed from a viewing angle of about 20 degrees. The imaging of a collimated relativistic outflow emerging from GW170817 adds substantial weight to the evidence linking binary neutron-star mergers and short γ-ray bursts.

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Data availability

All relevant (VLBI) data are available from the corresponding authors on request. The VLA data (presented in Fig. 2) are currently being readied for public release.

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We are grateful to the VLBA, VLA and GBT staff, especially M. Claussen, A. Mioduszewski, T. Minter, F. Ghigo, W. Brisken, K. O’Neill and M. McKinnon, for their support with the HSA observations. We thank V. Dhawan and P. Demorest for help with observational issues with the VLBI system at the VLA. K.P.M. thanks A. Mioduszewski, E. Momjian, E. Greisen, T. Pearson and S. Kulkarni for discussions. We thank M. Kasliwal for providing comments on the manuscript. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities. K.P.M. is currently a Jansky Fellow of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. K.P.M. acknowledges support from the Oxford Centre for Astrophysical Surveys, which is funded through the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation, for some initial work presented here. E.N. acknowledges the support of an ERC starting grant (GRB/SN) and an ISF grant (1277/13). A.T.D. is the recipient of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT150100415). G.H. acknowledges the support of NSF award AST-1654815. A.H. acknowledges support by the I-Core Program of the Planning and Budgeting Committee and the Israel Science Foundation. A.C. acknowledges support from the NSF CAREER award number 1455090 titled ‘CAREER: Radio and gravitational-wave emission from the largest explosions since the Big Bang’.

Author contributions

K.P.M., A.T.D., S.B., G.H. and D.A.F. coordinated the VLBI observations. A.T.D. and K.P.M. performed the VLBI data processing. O.G. and E.N. carried out the theoretical study, including analytic calculations and numerical simulations, with some input from K.H. K.P.M., A.T.D., E.N., G.H. and D.A.F. wrote the paper. A.C. and A.H. compiled the references. A.H., A.D. and K.P.M. compiled Methods. O.G., A.T.D., A.H. and K.P.M. prepared the figures. All co-authors discussed the results and provided comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: K. P. Mooley, A. T. Deller, O. Gottlieb


  1. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Socorro, NM, USA

    • K. P. Mooley
    •  & D. A. Frail
  2. Caltech, Pasadena, CA, USA

    • K. P. Mooley
    •  & G. Hallinan
  3. Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia

    • A. T. Deller
  4. ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia

    • A. T. Deller
  5. The Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

    • O. Gottlieb
    •  & E. Nakar
  6. Department of Space, Earth and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology, Onsala Space Observatory, Onsala, Sweden

    • S. Bourke
  7. Racah Institute of Physics, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel

    • A. Horesh
  8. Department of Physics and Astronomy, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA

    • A. Corsi
  9. Department Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • K. Hotokezaka


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to K. P. Mooley or O. Gottlieb.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 VLBI images.

    a, b, The cleaned images (natural weighting; 0.2 mas pixel−1) from the two epochs of VLBI, 75 days (a) and 230 days (b) post-merger. The centre coordinates for these images are RA = 13 h 09 min 48.069 s, dec. = −23° 22′ 53.39′. The black contours are at 11, 22 and 44 μJy beam−1 in both images (red dashed contour is −11 μJy beam−1). The peak flux density of the sources is 58 ± 5 μJy beam−1 (a) and 48 ± 6 μJy beam−1 (b) (image root-mean-square noise quoted as the 1σ uncertainty). The ellipse in the lower left corner of each panel shows the synthesized beam: (12.4, 2.2, −7) and (9.1, 3.2, −4) for the two epochs (major axis in mas, minor axis in mas, position angle in degrees).

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 VLBI astrometric accuracy.

    a, b, The VLBI positions of GW170817 (a, relative to the best-fit position at day 75) and the low-luminosity active galactic nucleus in NGC 4993 (b, relative to the previously derived position using VLBA-only observations). The individual observations of GW170817 have very low signal-to-noise ratio and hence large errors; the moderately discrepant measurement on day 72 has the lowest signal-to-noise ratio and was affected by observing issues at the GBT. The NGC 4993 positions do not show any significant systematic position shifts between the two epochs, and are consistent with our estimated systematic position uncertainties of 0.15 mas in RA and 0.5 mas in dec. The root-mean-square variation in the position of the nucleus of NGC 4993 over our seven individual observations (0.14 mas in RA and 0.49 mas in dec.) is shown as a dotted ellipse in b. All error bars and uncertainties quoted are 1σ.

  3. Extended Data Table 1 Log of VLBI (HSA) observations
  4. Extended Data Table 2 The initial set-ups of models A–D

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