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The Question

(Submitted April 01, 1998)

I'm a 16 year old amateur astronomer, and I'd like to know (in layman's terms, preferably) how merging neutron stars can result in GRBs.

The Answer

The gravitational potential energy of two 1.4 neutron stars almost in contact is about 3 x 10^53 ergs, which may enough to power gamma-ray bursts even at the cosmological distances where we now know them to occur, at least if the event is allowed to be non-isotropic and concentrate most of the energy release in narrow beams. The gravitational energy would be primarily released via the production of neutrino-antineutrino pairs, a small proportion of which would interact to produce electron-positron pairs, which would in turn annihilate generating a gamma-ray fireball. Theoreticians are having a very hard time modeling this process in detail though!

Paul Butterworth
for the Ask an Astrophysicist team

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