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r-Process nucleosynthesis in gravitational-wave and other explosive astrophysical events

Abstract

Gravitational-wave detectors have transformed the way we observe the Universe. Together with ground and space electromagnetic observatories, they have provided key insights into the long-standing question of how the heavy elements in the periodic table are synthesized. A few years into the new era of multi-messenger astronomy, following Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)’s, Virgo’s and Kagra’s third observation run, there is strong evidence for the detection of mergers of two neutron stars and of neutron stars and black holes. This Review reflects on recent observational surprises and speculates on their implications. It provides a preview of the open questions that these observations raise and on future opportunities for both theory and observations. These include insights into rapid neutron-capture (r-process) nucleosynthesis in neutron-star mergers and other astrophysical sites, such as collapsars and magnetorotational supernovae, with implications for nuclear (astro)physics more broadly, fundamental physics in compact astrophysical systems, as well as chemical evolution of galaxies.

Key points

  • The astrophysical origin of roughly half of the elements heavier than iron remains an open question.

  • Multi-messenger observations such as gravitational waves from neutron-star mergers combined with electromagnetic counterparts have transformed observational astronomy in the past 5 years and directly probe the synthesis of heavy elements (‘kilonovae’).

  • Based on recent observations, this Review conjectures that most of the heavy rapid neutron-capture (r-process) elements may be formed in winds from dense accretion discs, such as those that form in the aftermath of neutron-star mergers or in rare supernovae.

  • Many open questions exist regarding the contribution of mergers of neutron stars and black holes and rare types of supernovae (magnetorotational supernovae and collapsars) to the galactic r-process.

  • Important constraints on the astrophysical sites of r-process nucleosynthesis are derived from observations of chemical evolution of galaxies, in particular, from observed elemental abundance patterns of metal-poor stars.

  • Open questions, challenges, opportunities and new directions for multi-messenger astronomy and r-process nucleosynthesis are charted.

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Fig. 1: Abundances of the elements in the Solar System.
Fig. 2: Schematic overview of astrophysical sites for r-process nucleosynthesis.
Fig. 3: The kilonova scenario61.
Fig. 4: Ejecta distribution of neutron-star mergers.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks B. Metzger for comments on the manuscript and for introducing him to neutrino-cooled accretion discs several years ago, based on which many of the perspectives incorporated here have emerged. The author acknowledges detailed and thoughtful comments by the referees. The author also thanks L. Combi for providing visualization snapshots for Figs. 2 and 3, and S. De for providing implementations of ejecta fitting formulae used in ref.83, based on which the results of Fig. 4 were obtained. This research was enabled in part by support provided by SciNet (www.scinethpc.ca) and Compute Canada (www.computecanada.ca). The author acknowledges the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), funding reference number RGPIN-2019-04684. Research at Perimeter Institute is supported in part by the Government of Canada through the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and by the Province of Ontario through the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

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Siegel, D.M. r-Process nucleosynthesis in gravitational-wave and other explosive astrophysical events. Nat Rev Phys 4, 306–318 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42254-022-00439-1

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