Gamma ray burst progenitors

Gamma-ray burst progenitors are the types of celestial objects that can emit gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). GRBs show an extraordinary degree of diversity. They can last anywhere from a fraction of a second to many minutes. Bursts could have a single profile or oscillate wildly up and down in intensity, and their spectra are highly variable unlike other objects in space. The near complete lack of observational constraint led to a profusion of theories, including evaporating black holes, magnetic flares on white dwarfs, accretion of matter onto neutron stars, antimatter accretion, supernovae, hypernovae, and rapid extraction of rotational energy from supermassive black holes, among others.

There are at least two different types of progenitors (sources) of GRBs: one responsible for the long-duration, soft-spectrum bursts and one (or possibly more) responsible for short-duration, hard-spectrum bursts. The progenitors of long GRBs are believed to be massive, low-metallicity stars exploding due to the collapse of their cores. The progenitors of short GRBs are still unknown but mergers of neutron stars is probably the most popular model as of 2007.

Long GRBs: massive stars

Collapsar model

As of 2007, there is almost universal agreement in the astrophysics community that the long-duration bursts are associated with the deaths of massive stars in a specific kind of supernova-like event commonly referred to as a collapsar or hypernova. Very massive stars are able to fuse material in their centers all the way to iron, at which point a star cannot continue to generate energy by fusion and collapses, in this case, immediately forming a black hole. Matter from the star around the core rains down towards the center and (for rapidly rotating stars) swirls into a high-density accretion disk. The infall of this material into the black hole drives a pair of jets out along the rotational axis, where the matter density is much lower than in the accretion disk, towards the poles of the star at velocities approaching the speed of light, creating a relativistic shock wave at the front. If the star is not surrounded by a thick, diffuse hydrogen envelope, the jets' material can pummel all the way to the stellar surface. The leading shock actually accelerates as the density of the stellar matter it travels through decreases, and by the time it reaches the surface of the star it may be traveling with a Lorentz factor of 100 or higher (that is, a velocity of 0.9999 times the speed of light). Once it reaches the surface, the shock wave breaks out into space, with much of its energy released in the form of gamma-rays.

Three very special conditions are required for a star to evolve all the way to a gamma-ray burst under this theory: the star must be very massive (probably at least 40 Solar masses on the main sequence) to form a central black hole in the first place, the star must be rapidly rotating to develop an accretion torus capable of launching jets, and the star must have low metallicity in order to strip off its hydrogen envelope so the jets can reach the surface. As a result, gamma-ray bursts are far rarer than ordinary core-collapse supernovae, which only require that the star be massive enough to fuse all the way to iron.

Evidence for the collapsar view

This consensus is based largely on two lines of evidence. First, long gamma-ray bursts are found without exception in systems with abundant recent star formation, such as in irregular galaxies and in the arms of spiral galaxies. This is strong evidence of a link to massive stars, which evolve and die within a few hundred million years and are never found in regions where star formation has long ceased. This does not necessarily prove the collapsar model (other models also predict an association with star formation) but does provide significant support.

Second, there are now several observed cases where a supernova has immediately followed a gamma-ray burst. While most GRBs occur too far away for current instruments to have any chance of detecting the relatively faint emission from a supernova at that distance, for lower-redshift systems there are several well-documented cases where a GRB was followed within a few days by the appearance of a supernova. These supernovae that have been successfully classified are type Ib/c, a rare class of supernovae caused by core collapse. Type Ib/c supernovae lack hydrogen absorption lines, consistent with the theoretical prediction of stars that have lost their hydrogen envelope. The GRBs with the most obvious supernova signatures include GRB 060218 (SN 2006aj), GRB 030329 (SN 2003dh), and GRB 980425 (SN 1998bw), and a handful of more distant GRBs show supernova "bumps" in their afterglow light curves at late times.

Possible exceptions to this theory were recently discovered when two nearby long gamma-ray bursts lacked a signature of any type of supernova: both GRB060614 and GRB 060505 defied predictions that a supernova would emerge despite intense scrutiny from ground-based telescopes. Both events were, however, associated with actively star-forming stellar populations. One possible implication is that it now appears that a supernova can fail utterly during the core collapse of a massive star, perhaps when the black hole swallows the entire star before the supernova blast can reach the surface.

Short GRBs: degenerate binary systems?

Short gamma-ray bursts appear to be an exception. Until 2007, only a handful of these events have been localized to a definite galactic host. However, those that have been localized appear to show significant differences from the long-burst population. While at least one short burst has been found in the star-forming central region of a galaxy, several others have been associated with the outer regions and even the outer halo of large elliptical galaxies in which star formation has nearly ceased. All the hosts identified so far have also been at low redshift. Furthermore, despite the relatively nearby distances and detailed follow-up study for these events, no supernova has been associated with any short GRB.

Neutron star and Neutron star/Black hole mergers

While the astrophysical community has yet to settle on a single, universally favored model for the progenitors of short GRBs, the generally preferred model is the merger of two compact objects as a result of gravitational inspiral: two neutron stars, or a neutron star and a black hole. While thought to be rare in the Universe, a small number of cases of close neutron star - neutron star binaries are known in our Galaxy, and neutron star - black hole binaries are believed to exist as well. According to Einstein's theory of general relativity, systems of this nature will slowly lose energy due to gravitational radiation and the two degenerate objects will spiral closer and closer together, until in the last few moments, tidal forces rip the neutron star (or stars) apart and an immense amount of energy is liberated before the matter plunges into a single black hole. The whole process is believed to occur extremely quickly and be completely over within a few seconds, accounting for the short nature of these bursts. Unlike long-duration bursts, there is no conventional star to explode and therefore no supernova.

This model has been well-supported so far by the distribution of short GRB host galaxies, which have been observed in old galaxies with no star formation (for example, GRB050509B, the first short burst to be localized to a probable host) as well as in galaxies with star formation still occurring (such as GRB050709, the second), as even younger-looking galaxies can have significant populations of old stars. However, the picture is clouded somewhat by the observation of X-ray flaring in short GRBs out to very late times (up to many days), long after the merger should have been completed, and the failure to find nearby hosts of any sort for some short GRBs.

Magnetar giant flares

One final possible model that may describe a small subset of short GRBs are the so-called magnetar giant flares (also called megaflares or hyperflares). Members of a rare class of powerfully magnetized neutron stars known as "magnetars" (only five such objects are known in our Galaxy) are capable of producing brief but enormous outbursts of high-energy photons. Indeed, for a long time outbursts of this nature were a favorite model for producing all gamma-ray bursts. However, none of these events were observed to be luminous enough for bursts from similar events outside our Galaxy and its satellites to be detectable until 27 December 2004, when a blast of radiation from the magnetar SGR 1806-20 saturated the detectors of every gamma-ray satellite in orbit and significantly disrupted Earth's ionosphere. Such an event would easily be detectable from beyond our Galaxy, and it has been speculated that a handful of known GRBs may be associated with these events. As of 2007, a definitive link with any specific GRB is lacking, though there is suggestive evidence of association in the case of GRB051103. Furthermore, only a small fraction of known GRBs have spectral properties with any resemblance to the properties of giant flares.

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