A growing body of evidence indicates that binary neutron-star mergers are the primary origin of heavy elements produced exclusively through rapid neutron capture1,2,3,4 (the ‘r-process’). As neutron-star mergers occur infrequently, their deposition of radioactive isotopes into the pre-solar nebula could have been dominated by a few nearby events. Although short-lived r-process isotopes—with half-lives shorter than 100 million years—are no longer present in the Solar System, their abundances in the early Solar System are known because their daughter products were preserved in high-temperature condensates found in meteorites5. Here we report that abundances of short-lived r-process isotopes in the early Solar System point to their origin in neutron-star mergers, and indicate substantial deposition by a single nearby merger event. By comparing numerical simulations with the early Solar System abundance ratios of actinides produced exclusively through the r-process, we constrain the rate of occurrence of their Galactic production sites to within about 1−100 per million years. This is consistent with observational estimates of neutron-star merger rates6,7,8, but rules out supernovae and stellar sources. We further find that there was probably a single nearby merger that produced much of the curium and a substantial fraction of the plutonium present in the early Solar System. Such an event may have occurred about 300 parsecs away from the pre-solar nebula, approximately 80 million years before the formation of the Solar System.
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We are grateful to S. Goldstein, D. Helfand, T. Huard, Z. Marka, P. Mueller, C. Scharf and W. Zajc for their valuable comments and suggestions. We also thank the University of Florida and Columbia University in the City of New York for their generous support.