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  1. ABSTRACT Neutron binary star mergers have long been proposed as sufficiently neutron rich environments that could support the synthesis of rapid neutron capture elements (r-process elements) such as gold. However, the literature reveals that beyond neutral and singly ionized systems, there is an incompleteness of atomic data for the remaining ion stages of importance for mergers. In this work, we report on relativistic atomic structure calculations for Au i–Au iii using the grasp0 codes. Comparisons to calculations using the Flexible Atomic Code suggest uncertainties on average of 9.2 per cent, 5.7 per cent, and 3.8 per cent for Au i–Au iii level energies. Agreement around ∼50 per cent is achieved between our computed A-values and those in the literature, where available. Using the grasp0 structure of Au i, we calculated electron-impact excitation rate coefficients and use a collisional-radiative model to explore the excitation dynamics and line ratio diagnostics possible in neutron star merger environments. We find that proper accounting of metastable populations is critical for extracting useful information from ultraviolet–visible line ratio diagnostics of Au i. As a test of our data, we applied our electron-impact data to study a gold hollow cathode spectrum in the literature and diagnosed the plasma conditions as Te = 3.1 ± 1.2 eV and $n_\textrm {e} = 2.7^{+1.3}_{-0.9}\times 10^{13}$ cm−3.