The Origin of r-Process Elements in the Milky Way

B. Cote et al.

ApJ 855 2 (2018)

Some of the heavy elements, such as gold and europium (Eu), are almost exclusively formed by the rapid neutron capture process (r-process). However, it is still unclear which astrophysical site between core-collapse supernovae and neutron star - neutron star (NS-NS) mergers produced most of the r-process elements in the universe. Galactic chemical evolution (GCE) models can test these scenarios by quantifying the frequency and yields required to reproduce the amount of Eu observed in galaxies. Although NS-NS mergers have become popular candidates, their required frequency (or rate) needs to be consistent with that obtained from gravitational wave measurements. Here we address the first NS-NS merger detected by LIGO/Virgo (GW170817) and its associated Gamma-ray burst and analyze their implication on the origin of r-process elements. Among other elements, we find that this event has produced between 15 and 70 Earth masses of gold. Using the range of ejecta masses derived for GW170817, we find the range of NS-NS merger rate densities of $320-4740$\,\gpy\ provided by LIGO/Virgo to be remarkably consistent with the range required by GCE to explain the Eu abundances in the Milky Way with NS-NS mergers, assuming a typical r-process abundance pattern for the ejecta. When using theoretical calculations to derive Eu yields, constraining the role of NS-NS mergers becomes more challenging because of nuclear astrophysics uncertainties. If GW170817 is a representative event, NS-NS mergers can produce Eu in sufficient amount and are likely to be the main r-process site.