Can neutron-star mergers explain the r-process enrichment in globular clusters?

Maybe

The mystery of the elements

Where do the elements come from? Hydrogen, helium and a little lithium were made in the big bang. These lighter elements are fused together inside stars, making heavier elements up to around iron. At this point you no longer get energy out by smooshing nuclei together. To build even heavier elements, you need different processes—one being to introduce lots of extra neutrons. Adding neutrons slowly leads to creation of s-process elements, while adding then rapidly leads to the creation of r-process elements. By observing the distribution of elements, we can figure out how often these different processes operate.

Periodic table and element origins

Periodic table showing the origins of different elements found in our Solar System. THis plot assumes that neutron star mergers are the dominant source of r-process elements. Credit: Jennifer Johnson

It has long been theorised that the site of r-process production could be neutron star mergers. Material ejected as the stars are ripped apart or ejected following the collision is naturally neutron rich. This undergoes radioactive decay leading making r-process elements. The discovery of the first binary neutron star collision confirmed this happens. If you have any gold or platinum jewellery, it’s origins can probably be traced back to a pair of neutron stars which collided billions of years ago!

The r-process may also occur in supernova explosions. It is most likely that it occurs in both supernovae and neutron star mergers—the question is which contributes more. Figuring this out would be helpful in our quest to understand how stars live and die.

Hubble image of NGC 1898

Hubble Space Telescope image of the stars of NGC 1898, a globular cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

In this paper, led by Michael Zevin, we investigated the r-process elements of globular clusters. Globular clusters are big balls of stars. Apart from being beautiful, globular clusters are an excellent laboratory for testing our understanding of stars,as there are so many packed into a (relatively) small space. We considered if observations of r-process enrichment could be explained by binary neutron star mergers?

Enriching globular clusters

The stars in globular clusters are all born around the same time. They should all be made from the same stuff; they should have the same composition, aside from any elements that they have made themselves. Since r-process elements are not made in stars, the stars in a globular cluster should have the same abundances of these elements. However, measurements of elements like lanthanum and europium, show star-to-star variation in some globular clusters.

This variation can happen if some stars were polluted by r-process elements made after the cluster formed. The first stars formed from unpolluted gas, while later stars formed from gas which had been enriched, possibly with stars closer to the source being more enriched than those further away. For this to work, we need (i) a process which can happen quickly [bonus science note], as the time over which stars form is short (they are almost the same age), and (ii) something that will happen in some clusters but not others—we need to hit the goldilocks zone of something not so rare that we’d almost never since enrichment, but not so common that almost all clusters would be enriched. Can binary neutron stars merge quickly enough and with the right rate to explain r-process enrichment?

Making binary neutron stars

There are two ways of making binary neutron stars: dynamically and via isolated evolution. Dynamically formed binaries are made when two stars get close enough to form a pairing, or when a star gets close to an binary existing binary resulting in one member getting ejecting and the interloper taking its place, or when two binaries get close together, resulting in all sorts of madness (Michael has previously looked at binary black holes formed through binary–binary interactions, and I love the animations, as shown below). Isolated evolution happens when you have a pair of stars that live their entire lives together. We examined both channels.

Dynamically formed binaries

With globular clusters having so many stars in such a small space, you might think that dynamical formation is a good bet for binary neutron star formation. We found that this isn’t the case. The problem is that neutron stars are relatively light. This causes two problems. First, generally the heaviest objects generally settle in the centre of a cluster where the density is highest and binaries are most likely to form. Second, in interactions, it is typically the heaviest objects that will be left in the binary. Black holes are more massive than neutron stars, so they will initially take the prime position. Through dynamical interactions, many will be eventually ejected from the cluster; however, even then, many of the remaining stars will be more massive than the neutron stars. It is hard for neutron stars to get the prime binary-forming positions [bonus note].

To check on the dynamical-formation potential, we performed two simulations: one with the standard mix of stars, and one ultimate best case™ where we artificially removed all the black holes. In both cases, we found that binary neutron stars take billions of years to merge. That’s far too long to lead to the necessary r-process enrichment.

Time for binaries to form and merge

Time taken for double black hole (DHB, shown in blue), neutron star–black hole (NSBH, shown in green), and double neutron star (DNS, shown in purple) [bonus note] binaries to form and then inspiral to merge in globular cluster simulations. Circles and dashed histograms show results for the standard cluster model. Triangles and solids histograms show results when black holes are artificially removed. Figure 1 of a Zevin et al. (2019).

Isolated binaries

Considering isolated binaries, we need to work out how many binary neutron stars will merge close enough to a cluster to enrich it. This requires a couple of ingredients: (I) knowing how many binary neutron stars form, and (ii) working how many are still close to the cluster when they merge. Neutron stars will get kicks when they are born in supernova explosions, and these are enough to kick them out of the cluster.  So long as they merge before they get too far, that’s OK for enrichment. Therefore we need to track both those that stay in the cluster, and those which leave but merge before getting too far. To estimate the number of enriching binary neutron stars, we simulated a populations of binary stars.

The evolution of binary neutron stars can be complicated. The neutron stars form from massive stars. In order for them to end up merging, they need to be in a close binary. This means that as the stars evolve and start to expand, they will transfer mass between themselves. This mass transfer can be stable, in which case the orbit widens, faster eventually shutting off the mass transfer, or it can be unstable, when the star expands leading to even more mass transfer (what’s really important is the rate of change of the size of the star compared to the Roche lobe). When mass transfer is extremely rapid, it leads to the formation of a common envelope: the outer layers of the donor ends up encompassing both the core of the star and the companion. Drag experienced in a common envelope can lead to the orbit shrinking, exactly as you’d want for a merger, but it can be too efficient, and the two stars may merge before forming two neutron stars. It’s also not clear what would happen in this case if there isn’t a clear boundary between the envelope and core of the donor star—it’s probable you’d just get a mess and the stars merging. We used COSMIC to see the effects of different assumptions about the physics:

  • Model A: Our base model, which is in my opinion the least plausible. This assumes that helium stars can successfully survive a common envelope. Mass transfer from helium star will be especially important for our results, particularly what is called Case BB mass transfer [bonus note], which occurs once helium burning has finished in the core of a star, and is now burning is a shell outside the core.
  • Model B: Here, we assume that stars without a clear core/envelope boundary will always merge during the common envelope. Stars burning helium in a shell lack a clear core/envelope boundary, and so any common envelopes formed from Case BB mass transfer will result in the stars merging (and no binary neutron star forming). This is a pessimistic model in terms of predicting rates.
  • Model C: The same as Model A, but we use prescriptions from Tauris, Langer & Podsiadlowski (2015) for the orbital evolution and mass loss for mass transfer. These results show that mass transfer from helium stars typically proceeds stably. This means we don’t need to worry about common envelopes from Case BB mass transfer. This is more optimistic in terms of rates.
  • Model D: The same as Model C, except all stars which undergo Case BB mass transfer are assumed to become ultra-stripped. Since they have less material in their envelopes, we give them smaller supernova natal kicks, the same as electron capture supernovae.

All our models can produce some merging neutron stars within 100 million years. However, for Model B, this number is small, so that only a few percent of globular clusters would be enriched. For the others, it would be a few tens of percent, but not all. Model A gives the most enrichment. Model C and D are similar, with Model D producing slightly less enrichment.

Post-supernova binary neutron star properties for population models

Post-supernova binary neutron star properties (systemic velocity v_\mathrm{sys} vs inspiral time t_\mathrm{insp}, and orbital separation a vs eccentricity e) for our population models. The lines in the left-hand plots show the bounds for a binary to enrich a cluster of a given virial radius: viable binaries are below the lines. In both plots, red, blue and green points are the binaries which could enrich clusters of virial radii 1 pc, 3 pc and 10 pc; of the other points, purple indicates systems where the secondary star went through Case BB mass transfer. Figure 2 of Zevin et al. (2019).

Maybe?

Our results show that the r-process enrichment of globular clusters could be explained by binary neutron star mergers if binaries can survive Case BB mass transfer without merging. If Case BB mass transfer is typically unstable and somehow it is possible to survive a common envelope (Model A), ~30−90% of globular clusters should be enriched (depending upon their mass and size). This rate is consistent with consistent with current observations, but it is a stretch to imagine stars surviving common envelopes in this case. However, if Case BB mass transfer is stable (Models C and D), we still have ~10−70% of globular clusters should be enriched. This could plausibly explain everything! If we can measure the enrichment in more clusters and accurately pin down the fraction which are enriched, we may learn something important about how binaries interact.

However, for our idea to work, we do need globular clusters to form stars over an extended period of time. If there’s no gas around to absorb the material ejected from binary neutron star mergers and then form new stars, we have not cracked the problem. The plot below shows that the build up of enriching material happens at around 40 million years after the initial start formation. This is when we need the gas to be around. If this is not the case, we need a different method of enrichment.

r-process enrichment depending upon duration of star formation

Probability of cluster enrichment P_\mathrm{enrich} and number of enriching binary neutron star mergers per cluster \Lambda_\mathrm{enrich} as a function of the timescale of star formation \Delta \tau_\mathrm{SF}. Dashed lines are used of a cluster of a million solar masses and solid lines are used for a cluster of half this mass. Results are shown for Model D. The build up happens around the same time in different models. Figure 5 in Zevin et al. (2019).

It may be interesting to look again at r-process enrichment from supernova.

arXiv: arXiv:1906.11299 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal; 886(1):4(16); 2019 [bonus note]
Alternative tile: The Europium Report

Bonus notes

Hidden pulsars and GW190425

The most recent gravitational-wave detection, GW190425, comes from a binary neutron star system of an unusually high mass. It’s mass is much higher than the population of binary neutron stars observed in our Galaxy. One explanation for this could be that it represents a population which is short lived, and we’d be unlikely to spot one in our Galaxy, as they’re not around for long. Consequently, the same physics may be important both for this study of globular clusters and for explaining GW190425.

Gravitational-wave sources and dynamical formation

The question of how do binary neutron stars form is important for understanding gravitational-wave sources. The question of whether dynamically formed binary neutron stars could be a significant contribution to the overall rate was recently studied in detail in a paper led by Northwestern PhD student Claire Ye. The conclusions of this work was that the fraction of binary neutron stars formed dynamically in globular clusters was tiny (in agreement with our results). Only about 0.001% of binary neutron stars we observe with gravitational waves would be formed dynamically in globular clusters.

Double vs binary

In this paper we use double black hole = DBH and double neutron star = DNS instead of the usual binary black hole = BBH and binary neutron star = BNS from gravitational-wave astronomy. The terms mean the same. I will use binary instead of double here as B is worth more than D in Scrabble.

Mass transfer cases

The different types of mass transfer have names which I always forget. For regular stars we have:

  • Case A is from a star on the main sequence, when it is burning hydrogen in its core.
  • Case B is from a star which has finished burning hydrogen in its core, and is burning hydrogen in shell/burning helium in the core.
  • Case C is from a start which has finished core helium burning, and is burning helium in a shell. The star will now have carbon it its core, which may later start burning too.

The situation where mass transfer is avoided because the stars are well mixed, and so don’t expand, has also been referred to as Case M. This is more commonly known as (quai)chemically homogenous evolution.

If a star undergoes Case B mass transfer, it can lose its outer hydrogen-rich layers, to leave behind a helium star. This helium star may subsequently expand and undergo a new phase of mass transfer. The mass transfer from this helium star gets named similarly:

  • Case BA is from the helium star while it is on the helium main sequence burning helium in its core.
  • Case BB is from the helium star once it has finished core helium burning, and may be burning helium in a shell.
  • Case BC is from the helium star once it is burning carbon.

If the outer hydrogen-rich layers are lost during Case C mass transfer, we are left with a helium star with a carbon–oxygen core. In this case, subsequent mass transfer is named as:

  • Case CB if helium shell burning is on-going. (I wonder if this could lead to fast radio bursts?)
  • Case CC once core carbon burning has started.

I guess the naming almost makes sense. Case closed!

Page count

Don’t be put off by the length of the paper—the bibliography is extremely detailed. Michael was exceedingly proud of the number of references. I think it is the most in any non-review paper of mine!

Science with the space-based interferometer LISA. V. Extreme mass-ratio inspirals

The space-based observatory LISA will detect gravitational waves from massive black holes (giant black holes residing in the centres of galaxies). One particularly interesting signal will come from the inspiral of a regular stellar-mass black hole into a massive black hole. These are called extreme mass-ratio inspirals (or EMRIs, pronounced emries, to their friends) [bonus note]. We have never observed such a system. This means that there’s a lot we have to learn about them. In this work, we systematically investigated the prospects for observing EMRIs. We found that even though there’s a wide range in predictions for what EMRIs we will detect, they should be a safe bet for the LISA mission.

EMRI spacetime

Artistic impression of the spacetime for an extreme-mass-ratio inspiral, with a smaller stellar-mass black hole orbiting a massive black hole. This image is mandatory when talking about extreme-mass-ratio inspirals. Credit: NASA

LISA & EMRIs

My previous post discussed some of the interesting features of EMRIs. Because of the extreme difference in masses of the two black holes, it takes a long time for them to complete their inspiral. We can measure tens of thousands of orbits, which allows us to make wonderfully precise measurements of the source properties (if we can accurately pick out the signal from the data). Here, we’ll examine exactly what we could learn with LISA from EMRIs [bonus note].

First we build a model to investigate how many EMRIs there could be.  There is a lot of astrophysics which we are currently uncertain about, which leads to a large spread in estimates for the number of EMRIs. Second, we look at how precisely we could measure properties from the EMRI signals. The astrophysical uncertainties are less important here—we could get a revolutionary insight into the lives of massive black holes.

The number of EMRIs

To build a model of how many EMRIs there are, we need a few different inputs:

  1. The population of massive black holes
  2. The distribution of stellar clusters around massive black holes
  3. The range of orbits of EMRIs

We examine each of these in turn, building a more detailed model than has previously been constructed for EMRIs.

We currently know little about the population of massive black holes. This means we’ll discover lots when we start measuring signals (yay), but it’s rather inconvenient now, when we’re trying to predict how many EMRIs there are (boo). We take two different models for the mass distribution of massive black holes. One is based upon a semi-analytic model of massive black hole formation, the other is at the pessimistic end allowed by current observations. The semi-analytic model predicts massive black hole spins around 0.98, but we also consider spins being uniformly distributed between 0 and 1, and spins of 0. This gives us a picture of the bigger black hole, now we need the smaller.

Observations show that the masses of massive black holes are correlated with their surrounding cluster of stars—bigger black holes have bigger clusters. We consider four different versions of this trend: Gültekin et al. (2009); Kormendy & Ho (2013); Graham & Scott (2013), and Shankar et al. (2016). The stars and black holes about a massive black hole should form a cusp, with the density of objects increasing towards the massive black hole. This is great for EMRI formation. However, the cusp is disrupted if two galaxies (and their massive black holes) merge. This tends to happen—it’s how we get bigger galaxies (and black holes). It then takes some time for the cusp to reform, during which time, we don’t expect as many EMRIs. Therefore, we factor in the amount of time for which there is a cusp for massive black holes of different masses and spins.

Colliding galaxies

That’s a nice galaxy you have there. It would be a shame if it were to collide with something… Hubble image of The Mice. Credit: ACS Science & Engineering Team.

Given a cusp about a massive black hole, we then need to know how often an EMRI forms. Simulations give us a starting point. However, these only consider a snap-shot, and we need to consider how things evolve with time. As stellar-mass black holes inspiral, the massive black hole will grow in mass and the surrounding cluster will become depleted. Both these effects are amplified because for each inspiral, there’ll be many more stars or stellar-mass black holes which will just plunge directly into the massive black hole. We therefore need to limit the number of EMRIs so that we don’t have an unrealistically high rate. We do this by adding in a couple of feedback factors, one to cap the rate so that we don’t deplete the cusp quicker than new objects will be added to it, and one to limit the maximum amount of mass the massive black hole can grow from inspirals and plunges. This gives us an idea for the total number of inspirals.

Finally, we calculate the orbits that EMRIs will be on.  We again base this upon simulations, and factor in how the spin of the massive black hole effects the distribution of orbital inclinations.

Putting all the pieces together, we can calculate the population of EMRIs. We now need to work out how many LISA would be able to detect. This means we need models for the gravitational-wave signal. Since we are simulating a large number, we use a computationally inexpensive analytic model. We know that this isn’t too accurate, but we consider two different options for setting the end of the inspiral (where the smaller black hole finally plunges) which should bound the true range of results.

Number of detected EMRIs

Number of EMRIs for different size massive black holes in different astrophysical models. M1 is our best estimate, the others explore variations on this. M11 and M12 are designed to be cover the extremes, being the most pessimistic and optimistic combinations. The solid and dashed lines are for two different signal models (AKK and AKS), which are designed to give an indication of potential variation. They agree where the massive black hole is not spinning (M10 and M11). The range of masses is similar for all models, as it is set by the sensitivity of LISA. We can detect higher mass systems assuming the AKK signal model as it includes extra inspiral close to highly spinning black holes: for the heaviest black holes, this is the only part of the signal at high enough frequency to be detectable. Figure 8 of Babak et al. (2017).

Allowing for all the different uncertainties, we find that there should be somewhere between 1 and 4200 EMRIs detected per year. (The model we used when studying transient resonances predicted about 250 per year, albeit with a slightly different detector configuration, which is fairly typical of all the models we consider here). This range is encouraging. The lower end means that EMRIs are a pretty safe bet, we’d be unlucky not to get at least one over the course of a multi-year mission (LISA should have at least four years observing). The upper end means there could be lots—we might actually need to worry about them forming a background source of noise if we can’t individually distinguish them!

EMRI measurements

Having shown that EMRIs are a good LISA source, we now need to consider what we could learn by measuring them?

We estimate the precision we will be able to measure parameters using the Fisher information matrix. The Fisher matrix measures how sensitive our observations are to changes in the parameters (the more sensitive we are, the better we should be able to measure that parameter). It should be a lower bound on actual measurement precision, and well approximate the uncertainty in the high signal-to-noise (loud signal) limit. The combination of our use of the Fisher matrix and our approximate signal models means our results will not be perfect estimates of real performance, but they should give an indication of the typical size of measurement uncertainties.

Given that we measure a huge number of cycles from the EMRI signal, we can make really precise measurements of the the mass and spin of the massive black hole, as these parameters control the orbital frequencies. Below are plots for the typical measurement precision from our Fisher matrix analysis. The orbital eccentricity is measured to similar accuracy, as it influences the range of orbital frequencies too. We also get pretty good measurements of the the mass of the smaller black hole, as this sets how quickly the inspiral proceeds (how quickly the orbital frequencies change). EMRIs will allow us to do precision astronomy!

EMRI redshifted mass measurements

Distribution of (one standard deviation) fractional uncertainties for measurements of the  massive black hole (redshifted) mass M_z. Results are shown for the different astrophysical models, and for the different signal models.  The astrophysical model has little impact on the uncertainties. M4 shows a slight difference as it assumes heavier stellar-mass black holes. The results with the two signal models agree when the massive black hole is not spinning (M10 and M11). Otherwise, measurements are more precise with the AKK signal model, as this includes extra signal from the end of the inspiral. Part of Figure 11 of Babak et al. (2017).

EMRI spin measurements

Distribution of (one standard deviation) uncertainties for measurements of the massive black hole spin a. The results mirror those for the masses above. Part of Figure 11 of Babak et al. (2017).

Now, before you get too excited that we’re going to learn everything about massive black holes, there is one confession I should make. In the plot above I show the measurement accuracy for the redshifted mass of the massive black hole. The cosmological expansion of the Universe causes gravitational waves to become stretched to lower frequencies in the same way light is (this makes visible light more red, hence the name). The measured frequency is f_z = (1 + z)f where f is the frequency emitted, and z is the redshift (z= 0 for a nearby source, and is larger for further away sources). Lower frequency gravitational waves correspond to higher mass systems, so it is often convenient to work with the redshifted mass, the mass corresponding to the signal you measure if you ignore redshifting. The redshifted mass of the massive black hole is M_z = (1+z)M where M is the true mass. To work out the true mass, we need the redshift, which means we need to measure the distance to the source.

EMRI lumniosity distance measurement

Distribution of (one standard deviation) fractional uncertainties for measurements of the luminosity distance D_\mathrm{L}. The signal model is not as important here, as the uncertainty only depends on how loud the signal is. Part of Figure 12 of Babak et al. (2017).

The plot above shows the fractional uncertainty on the distance. We don’t measure this too well, as it is determined from the amplitude of the signal, rather than its frequency components. The situation is much as for LIGO. The larger uncertainties on the distance will dominate the overall uncertainty on the black hole masses. We won’t be getting all these to fractions of a percent. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still figure out what the distribution of masses looks like!

One of the really exciting things we can do with EMRIs is check that the signal matches our expectations for a black hole in general relativity. Since we get such an excellent map of the spacetime of the massive black hole, it is easy to check for deviations. In general relativity, everything about the black hole is fixed by its mass and spin (often referred to as the no-hair theorem). Using the measured EMRI signal, we can check if this is the case. One convenient way of doing this is to describe the spacetime of the massive object in terms of a multipole expansion. The first (most important) terms gives the mass, and the next term the spin. The third term (the quadrupole) is set by the first two, so if we can measure it, we can check if it is consistent with the expected relation. We estimated how precisely we could measure a deviation in the quadrupole. Fortunately, for this consistency test, all factors from redshifting cancel out, so we can get really detailed results, as shown below. Using EMRIs, we’ll be able to check for really small differences from general relativity!

EMRI measurement of bumpy black hole spacetime

Distribution of (one standard deviation) of uncertainties for deviations in the quadrupole moment of the massive object spacetime \mathcal{Q}. Results are similar to the mass and spin measurements. Figure 13 of Babak et al. (2017).

In summary: EMRIS are awesome. We’re not sure how many we’ll detect with LISA, but we’re confident there will be some, perhaps a couple of hundred per year. From the signals we’ll get new insights into the masses and spins of black holes. This should tell us something about how they, and their surrounding galaxies, evolved. We’ll also be able to do some stringent tests of whether the massive objects are black holes as described by general relativity. It’s all pretty exciting, for when LISA launches, which is currently planned about 2034…

Sometimes, it leads to very little, and it seems like it's not worth it, and you wonder why you waited so long for something so disappointing

One of the most valuable traits a student or soldier can have: patience. Credit: Sony/Marvel

arXiv: 1703.09722 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 477(4):4685–4695; 2018
Conference proceedings: 1704.00009 [astro-ph.GA] (from when work was still in-progress)
Estimated number of Marvel films before LISA launch: 48 (starting with Ant-Man and the Wasp)

Bonus notes

Hyphenation

Is it “extreme-mass-ratio inspiral”, “extreme mass-ratio inspiral” or “extreme mass ratio inspiral”? All are used in the literature. This is one of the advantage of using “EMRI”. The important thing is that we’re talking about inspirals that have a mass ratio which is extreme. For this paper, we used “extreme mass-ratio inspiral”, but when I first started my PhD, I was first introduced to “extreme-mass-ratio inspirals”, so they are always stuck that way in my mind.

I think hyphenation is a bit of an art, and there’s no definitive answer here, just like there isn’t for superhero names, where you can have Iron Man, Spider-Man or Iceman.

Science with LISA

This paper is part of a series looking at what LISA could tells us about different gravitational wave sources. So far, this series covers

  1. Massive black hole binaries
  2. Cosmological phase transitions
  3. Standard sirens (for measuring the expansion of the Universe)
  4. Inflation
  5. Extreme-mass-ratio inspirals

You’ll notice there’s a change in the name of the mission from eLISA to LISA part-way through, as things have evolved. (Or devolved?) I think the main take-away so far is that the cosmology group is the most enthusiastic.