Variability in Short Gamma-Ray Bursts: Gravitationally Unstable Tidal Tails

Eric R. Coughlin, C. J. Nixon, Jennifer Barnes, Brian D. Metzger, R. Margutti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Short gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are thought to result from the merger of two neutron stars (NSs) or an NS and a stellar mass black hole (BH). The final stages of the merger are generally accompanied by the production of one or more tidal "tails" of ejecta, which fall back onto the remnant-disk system at late times. Using the results of a linear stability analysis, we show that if the material comprising these tails is modeled as adiabatic and the effective adiabatic index satisfies γ ≥ 5/3, then the tails are gravitationally unstable and collapse to form small-scale knots. We analytically estimate the properties of these knots, including their spacing along the tidal tail, the total number produced, and their effect on the mass return rate to the merger remnant. We perform hydrodynamical simulations of the disruption of a polytropic (with the polytropic and adiabatic indices γ equal), γ = 2 NS, by a BH and find agreement between the predictions of the linear stability analysis and the distribution of knots that collapse out of the instability. The return of these knots to the BH induces variability in the fallback rate, which can manifest as variability in the light curve of the GRB and-depending on how rapidly the instability operates-the prompt emission. The late-Time variability induced by the return of these knots is also consistent with the extended emission observed in some GRBs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberL38
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 20 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Variability in Short Gamma-Ray Bursts: Gravitationally Unstable Tidal Tails'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this