Half of all of the elements in the Universe that are heavier than iron were created by rapid neutron capture. The theory underlying this astrophysical r-process was worked out six decades ago, and requires an enormous neutron flux to make the bulk of the elements1. Where this happens is still debated2. A key piece of evidence would be the discovery of freshly synthesized r-process elements in an astrophysical site. Existing models3,4,5 and circumstantial evidence6 point to neutron-star mergers as a probable r-process site; the optical/infrared transient known as a ‘kilonova’ that emerges in the days after a merger is a likely place to detect the spectral signatures of newly created neutron-capture elements7,8,9. The kilonova AT2017gfo—which was found following the discovery of the neutron-star merger GW170817 by gravitational-wave detectors10—was the first kilonova for which detailed spectra were recorded. When these spectra were first reported11,12, it was argued that they were broadly consistent with an outflow of radioactive heavy elements; however, there was no robust identification of any one element. Here we report the identification of the neutron-capture element strontium in a reanalysis of these spectra. The detection of a neutron-capture element associated with the collision of two extreme-density stars establishes the origin of r-process elements in neutron-star mergers, and shows that neutron stars are made of neutron-rich matter13.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Work in this paper was based on observations made with European Space Observatory (ESO) telescopes at the Paranal Observatory under programmes 099.D-0382 (principal investigator E. Pian), 099.D-0622 (principal investigator P. D’Avanzo), 099.D-0376 (principal investigator S. J. Smartt) and 099.D-0191 (principal investigator A. Grado). The data are available at http://archive.eso.org.
Burbidge, E. M., Burbidge, G. R., Fowler, W. A. & Hoyle, F. Synthesis of the elements in stars. Rev. Mod. Phys. 29, 547–650 (1957).
Siegel, D. M., Barnes, J. & Metzger, B. D. Collapsars as a major source of r-process elements. Nature 569, 241–244 (2019).
Lattimer, J. M., Mackie, F., Ravenhall, D. G. & Schramm, D. N. The decompression of cold neutron star matter. Astrophys. J. 213, 225–233 (1977).
Eichler, D., Livio, M., Piran, T. & Schramm, D. N. Nucleosynthesis, neutrino bursts and gamma-rays from coalescing neutron stars. Nature 340, 126–128 (1989).
Freiburghaus, C., Rosswog, S. & Thielemann, F.-K. R-process in neutron star mergers. Astrophys. J. 525, L121–L124 (1999).
Ji, A. P., Frebel, A., Simon, J. D. & Chiti, A. Complete element abundances of nine stars in the r-process galaxy Reticulum II. Astrophys. J. 830, 93 (2016).
Metzger, B. D. et al. Electromagnetic counterparts of compact object mergers powered by the radioactive decay of r-process nuclei. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 406, 2650–2662 (2010).
Barnes, J. & Kasen, D. Effect of a high opacity on the light curves of radioactively powered transients from compact object mergers. Astrophys. J. 775, 18 (2013).
Tanvir, N. R. et al. A ‘kilonova’ associated with the short-duration γ-ray burst GRB 130603B. Nature 500, 547–549 (2013).
Abbott, B. P. et al. GW170817: observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star inspiral. Phys. Rev. Lett. 119, 161101 (2017).
Pian, E. et al. Spectroscopic identification of r-process nucleosynthesis in a double neutron-star merger. Nature 551, 67–70 (2017).
Smartt, S. J. et al. A kilonova as the electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational-wave source. Nature 551, 75–79 (2017).
Baade, W. & Zwicky, F. Cosmic rays from supernovae. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 20, 259–263 (1934).
Tanaka, M. & Hotokezaka, K. Radiative transfer simulations of neutron star merger ejecta. Astrophys. J. 775, 113 (2013).
Kasen, D., Metzger, B., Barnes, J., Quataert, E. & Ramirez-Ruiz, E. Origin of the heavy elements in binary neutron-star mergers from a gravitational-wave event. Nature 551, 80–84 (2017).
Sneden, C., Bean, J., Ivans, I., Lucatello, S. & Sobeck, J. MOOG: LTE line analysis and spectrum synthesis. Astrophysics Source Code Library https://www.as.utexas.edu/~chris/moog.html (2012).
Kerzendorf, W. E. & Sim, S. A. A spectral synthesis code for rapid modelling of supernovae. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 440, 387–404 (2014).
Lodders, K., Palme, H. & Gail, H.-P. in Solar System: Landolt Börnstein Group VI Astronomy and Astrophysics Vol. 4B (ed. Trümper, J. E.) 712 (Springer, 2009).
Bisterzo, S., Travaglio, C., Gallino, R., Wiescher, M. & Käppeler, F. Galactic chemical evolution and solar s-process abundances: dependence on the 13C-pocket structure. Astrophys. J. 787, 10 (2014).
Honda, S., Aoki, W., Ishimaru, Y. & Wanajo, S. Neutron-capture elements in the very metal-poor star HD 88609: another star with excesses of light neutron-capture elements. Astrophys. J. 666, 1189–1197 (2007).
Sneden, C. et al. Evidence of multiple r-process sites in the early galaxy: new observations of CS 22892–052. Astrophys. J. 533, L139–L142 (2000).
Kasen, D., Badnell, N. R. & Barnes, J. Opacities and spectra of the r-process ejecta from neutron star mergers. Astrophys. J. 774, 25 (2013).
Jeffery, D. J. & Branch, D. in Supernovae, Jerusalem Winter School for Theoretical Physics Vol. 6 (eds Wheeler, J. C., Piran, T. & Weinberg, S.) 149 (World Scientific, 1990).
Kurucz, R. L. Including all the lines: data releases for spectra and opacities. Can. J. Phys. 95, 825–827 (2017).
Wanajo, S. et al. Production of all the r-process nuclides in the dynamical ejecta of neutron star mergers. Astrophys. J. 789, L39 (2014).
Just, O., Bauswein, A., Pulpillo, R. A., Goriely, S. & Janka, H.-T. Comprehensive nucleosynthesis analysis for ejecta of compact binary mergers. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 448, 541–567 (2015).
Drout, M. R. et al. Light curves of the neutron star merger GW170817/SSS17a: implications for r-process nucleosynthesis. Science 358, 1570–1574 (2017).
Tanvir, N. R. et al. The emergence of a lanthanide-rich kilonova following the merger of two neutron stars. Astrophys. J. 848, L27 (2017).
Hansen, C. J., Montes, F. & Arcones, A. How many nucleosynthesis processes exist at low metallicity? Astrophys. J. 797, 123 (2014).
Hewish, A., Bell, S. J., Pilkington, J. D. H., Scott, P. F. & Collins, R. A. Observation of a rapidly pulsating radio source. Nature 217, 709–713 (1968).
Sneden, C., Lawler, J. E., Cowan, J. J., Ivans, I. I. & Den Hartog, E. A. New rare earth element abundance distributions for the Sun and five r-process-rich very metal-poor stars. Astrophys. J. 182 (Suppl.), 80–96 (2009).
Sneden, C. et al. The extremely metal-poor, neutron capture-rich star CS 22892-052: a comprehensive abundance analysis. Astrophys. J. 591, 936–953 (2003).
MOOG spectral synthesis code. https://www.as.utexas.edu/~chris/moog.html (C. Sneden, 2017).
Castelli, F. & Kurucz, R. L. New grids of ATLAS9 model atmospheres. https://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0405087 (2004).
Biémont, E. & Quinet, P. Recent advances in the study of lanthanide atoms and ions. Physica Scripta T105, 38 (2003).
Den Hartog, E. A., Lawler, J. E., Sneden, C. & Cowan, J. J. Improved laboratory transition probabilities for Nd ii and application to the neodymium abundances of the Sun and three metal-poor stars. Astrophys. J. 148 (Suppl.), 543–566 (2003).
Lawler, J. E., Bonvallet, G. & Sneden, C. Experimental radiative lifetimes, branching fractions, and oscillator strengths for La ii and a new determination of the solar lanthanum abundance. Astrophys. J. 556, 452–460 (2001).
Lawler, J. E., Wickliffe, M. E., den Hartog, E. A. & Sneden, C. Improved laboratory transition parameters for Eu ii and application to the solar europium elemental and isotopic composition. Astrophys. J. 563, 1075–1088 (2001).
Lawler, J. E., Wickliffe, M. E., Cowley, C. R. & Sneden, C. Atomic transition probabilities in Tb ii with applications to solar and stellar spectra. Astrophys. J. 137 (Suppl.), 341–349 (2001).
Lawler, J. E., Den Hartog, E. A., Sneden, C. & Cowan, J. J. Improved laboratory transition probabilities for Sm ii and application to the samarium abundances of the Sun and three r-process-rich, metal-poor stars. Astrophys. J. 162 (Suppl.), 227–260 (2006).
McCully, C. et al. The rapid reddening and featureless optical spectra of the optical counterpart of GW170817, AT 2017gfo, during the first four days. Astrophys. J. 848, L32 (2017).
Chornock, R. et al. The electromagnetic counterpart of the binary neutron star merger LIGO/Virgo GW170817. IV. Detection of near-infrared signatures of r-process nucleosynthesis with Gemini-South. Astrophys. J. 848, L19 (2017).
Sneden, C., Cowan, J. J. & Gallino, R. in Chemical Abundances in the Universe: Connecting First Stars to Planets Vol. 265 (eds Cunha, K., Spite, M. & Barbuy, B.) 46–53 (IAU Symposium, 2010).
Kurucz line list. http://kurucz.harvard.edu/linelists/gfnew/gfall08oct17.dat.
Tanaka, M. et al. Properties of kilonovae from dynamical and post-merger ejecta of neutron star mergers. Astron. Astrophys. 852, 109 (2018).
Karp, A. H., Lasher, G., Chan, K. L. & Salpeter, E. E. The opacity of expanding media—the effect of spectral lines. Astrophys. J. 214, 161 (1977).
Shappee, B. J. et al. Early spectra of the gravitational wave source GW170817: evolution of a neutron star merger. Science 358, 1574–1578 (2017).
Waxman, E., Ofek, E., Kushnir, D. & Gal-Yam, A. Constraints on the ejecta of the GW170817 neutron-star merger from its electromagnetic emission. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 481, 3423–3441 (2018).
Pinto, P. A. & Eastman, R. G. The physics of type IA supernova light curves. II. Opacity and diffusion. Astrophys. J. 530, 757–776 (2000).
Newville, M. et al. Lmfit: non-linear least-square minimization and curve-fitting for Python. Astrophysics Source Code Library https://zenodo.org/record/11813#.XX-EoS3MxuU (2016).
Foreman-Mackey, D., Hogg, D. W., Lang, D. & Goodman, J. emcee: the MCMC hammer. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pacific 125, 306 (2013).
Tanaka, M. et al. Kilonova from post-merger ejecta as an optical and near-Infrared counterpart of GW170817. Publ. Astron. Soc. Japan 69, 102 (2017).
Perego, A. et al. Neutrino-driven winds from neutron star merger remnants. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 443, 3134–3156 (2014).
We thank M. Tanaka for revisiting his previous analysis for us and for access to his spectra and line lists. We thank J. Hjorth and N. Rea for discussions. We thank the ESO Director General for allocating Director’s Discretionary Time to this programme, and the ESO operation staff for support. D.W., D.B.M., and J.S. are supported in part by Independent Research Fund Denmark grant DFF-7014-00017. The Cosmic Dawn Center is funded by the Danish National Research Foundation under grant number 140. C.J.H. acknowledges support from the ‘ChETEC’ COST Action (CA16117), supported by COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). A.A. is supported by the European Research Council (ERC) through ERC Starting Grant 677912 EUROPIUM. A.A. and A.B. are supported by the Sonderforschungsbereich SFB 1245 ‘Nuclei: From Fundamental Interactions to Structure and Stars’. A.B. and A.K. are supported by the Sonderforschungsbereich SFB 881 ‘The Milky Way System’ (subprojects A03, A05, A10 and A11) of the German Research Foundation (DFG). A.B. is supported by the ERC through ERC Starting Grant 759253 GreatMoves, and acknowledges support from the Klaus Tschira Foundation. S.C. acknowledges partial funding from Agenzia Spaziale Italiana-Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica grant I/004/11/3. G.L. is supported by a research grant (19054) from Villum Fonden. K.E.H. acknowledges support by a Project Grant (162948-051) from The Icelandic Research Fund. A.J.L. acknowledges funding from the ERC under grant agreement 725246, and from the UK Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) via grant ST/P000495/1. E.P. acknowledges funding from the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) INAF grant I/088/06/0, and from the INAF project ‘Gravitational Wave Astronomy with the first detections of aLIGO and aVIRGO experiments’.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
These spectra were generated using MOOG, in which the relative abundances are based on solar r-process abundances. The spectra were blueshifted, broadened and normalized as in Fig. 3. The solid black line is the total transmission spectrum for an atmosphere containing all the r-process elements (33As to 92U). The dashed black line is the same spectrum, but including only the light r-process elements (33As to 55Cs). The contributions from different subsets of species are also shown. The green dotted line shows the heavy r-process elements (56Ba to 92U); the blue dotted line shows the light r-process elements (33As−55Cs) excluding Sr, which is shown as a red dotted line. This plot shows how Sr stands out in absorption, regardless of the composition of the material. The normalization is arbitrary and different to the LTE equivalent in Fig. 3 for display reasons.
The spectra were generated with MOOG and are similar to those shown in Extended Data Fig. 1, except that all element contributions are displayed individually. The elements that contribute most at the reddest wavelengths are noted within the plotted line.
The spectra are based on the lines formed in a gas in local thermal equilibrium. The abundances of elements are scaled to the solar r-process and the spectra are velocity broadened, blueshifted and normalized as in Fig. 3. The spectrum derived from the total solar r-process abundance mix is plotted as a thick black line. The contributions from Sr clearly dominate at around 8,000 Å, with no substantial contribution from any other element.
The velocities were determined independently from the P Cygni absorption line widths (blue points) and the blackbody radius (red points). Uncertainties shown are 1σ. The correspondence between the two independent estimates is striking.
This calculation shows the potential of Sr to dominate the opacity at around 1 μm at low optical depths. The opacities are based on LTE calculations for a gas at a temperature of 5,000 K, a mean local density of 8.4 × 10−17 g cm−3 for Sr or Ce, an electron density of 7.6 × 108 cm−3, and a 1% atmospheric radius at 1.5 days after the explosion. Line lists used for Sr and Ce are from the Kurucz and VALD databases respectively.
The blue line is the synthetic TARDIS spectrum using relative solar r-process abundances and including elements from 31Ga to 37Rb—that is, without Sr. The red line also includes 38Sr. The green line is a model including all elements from 31Ga to 92U. These models show that the spectra are well reproduced with elements around the first r-process abundance peak, specifically Sr.
Line lists used in the paper for the MOOG models. The line lists are tables of spectral lines compatible with the spectral synthesis code MOOG. Each file consists of an individual element's lines with the filename of the form ‘Z<atomic_number>.list’. The columns are: 1: Wavelength (Angstrom); 2: Atomic_number.charge; 3: Lower energy level of the transition (eV); 4: log(gf) of the line.
About this article
Cite this article
Watson, D., Hansen, C.J., Selsing, J. et al. Identification of strontium in the merger of two neutron stars. Nature 574, 497–500 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1676-3
Reviews of Modern Physics (2021)
Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences (2021)
Physical Review C (2021)
Experimental Astronomy (2021)