New constraints on the physical conditions in H2-bearing GRB-host damped Lyman-α absorbers

K. E. Heintz, J. Bolmer, C. Ledoux, P. Noterdaeme, J-K Krogager, J. P. U. Fynbo, P. Jakobsson, S. Covino, V D'Elia, M. De Pasquale, D. H. Hartmann, L. Izzo, J. Japelj, D. A. Kann, L. Kaper, P. Petitjean, A. Rossi, R. Salvaterra, P. Schady, J. SelsingR. Starling, N. R. Tanvir, C. C. Thone, A. de Ugarte Postigo, S. D. Vergani, D. Watson, K. WierSema, T. Zafar

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We report the detections of molecular hydrogen (H2), vibrationally-excited H2 (H2), and neutral atomic carbon (C I), an efficient tracer of molecular gas, in two new afterglow spectra of GRBs 181020A (z = 2.938) and 190114A (z = 3.376), observed with X-shooter at the Very Large Telescope (VLT). Both host-galaxy absorption systems are characterized by strong damped Lyman-α absorbers (DLAs) and substantial amounts of molecular hydrogen with logN(H I, H2) = 22.20 ± 0.05,  20.40 ± 0.04 (GRB 181020A) and logN(H I, H2) = 22.15 ± 0.05,  19.44 ± 0.04 (GRB 190114A). The DLA metallicites, depletion levels, and dust extinctions are within the typical regimes probed by GRBs with [Zn/H] = −1.57 ± 0.06, [Zn/Fe] = 0.67 ± 0.03, and AV = 0.27 ± 0.02 mag (GRB 181020A) and [Zn/H] = −1.23 ± 0.07, [Zn/Fe] = 1.06 ± 0.08, and AV = 0.36 ± 0.02 mag (GRB 190114A). In addition, we examine the molecular gas content of all known H2-bearing GRB-DLAs and explore the physical conditions and characteristics required to simultaneously probe C I and H2. We confirm that H2 is detected in all C I- and H2-bearing GRB absorption systems, but that these rarer features are not necessarily detected in all GRB H2 absorbers. We find that a large molecular fraction of fH2 ≳ 10−3 is required for C I to be detected. The defining characteristic for H2 to be present is less clear, though a large H2 column density is an essential factor. We also find that the observed line profiles of the molecular-gas tracers are kinematically “cold”, with small velocity offsets of δv <  20 km s−1 from the bulk of the neutral absorbing gas. We then derive the H2 excitation temperatures of the molecular gas and find that they are relatively low with Tex ≈ 100−300 K, however, there could be evidence of warmer components populating the high-J H2 levels in GRBs 181020A and 190114A. Finally, we demonstrate that even though the X-shooter GRB afterglow campaign has been successful in recovering several H2-bearing GRB-host absorbers, this sample is still hampered by a significant dust bias excluding the most dust-obscured H2 absorbers from identification. C I and H2 could open a potential route to identify molecular gas even in low-metallicity or highly dust-obscured bursts, though they are only efficient tracers for the most H2-rich GRB-host absorption systems.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberA131
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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