Active galactic nucleus

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Template:Harvard reference An active galactic nucleus (AGN) is a compact region at the centre of a galaxy which has a much higher than normal luminosity over some or all of the electromagnetic spectrum (in the radio, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and/or gamma ray wavebands). A galaxy hosting an AGN is called an active galaxy. The radiation from AGN is believed to be a result of accretion on to the supermassive black hole at the centre of the host galaxy. AGN are the most luminous persistent sources of electromagnetic radiation in the universe, and as such can be used as a means of discovering distant objects; their evolution as a function of cosmic time also provides constraints on cosmological models.

Hubble Space Telescope image of a 5000 light-year long jet being ejected from the active nucleus of the active galaxy M87 (a radio galaxy). The synchrotron radiation of the jet (blue) contrasts with the starlight from the host galaxy (yellow).

Models of the active nucleus

For a long time it has been argued (e.g. Lynden-Bell 1969) that AGN must be powered by accretion onto massive black holes (with masses between 106 and 1010 times that of the Sun). AGN are both compact and persistently extremely luminous: accretion can potentially give very efficient conversion of potential and kinetic energy to radiation, and a massive black hole has a high Eddington luminosity, so that it can provide the observed high persistent luminosity. Central supermassive black holes are now believed to exist in the centres of all massive galaxies: the mass of the black hole correlates well with the velocity dispersion or luminosity of the bulge of the galaxy (e.g. Marconi & Hunt 2003). Thus AGN-like characteristics are expected whenever a supply of material for accretion comes within the sphere of influence of the central black hole.

Accretion disk

In the standard model of AGN, cold material close to the central black hole forms an accretion disc. Dissipative processes in the accretion disc transport matter inwards and angular momentum outwards, while causing the accretion disc to heat up. The expected spectrum of an accretion disc around a supermassive black hole peaks in the optical-ultraviolet waveband; in addition, a corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc and can inverse-Compton scatter photons up to X-ray energies. The radiation from the accretion disc excites cold atomic material close to the black hole and this radiates via emission lines. A large fraction of the AGN's primary output may be obscured by interstellar gas and dust close to the accretion disc, but (in a steady-state situation) this will be re-radiated at some other waveband, most likely the infrared.

Relativistic jets

At least some accretion discs produce jets, twin highly collimated and fast outflows that emerge from close to the disc (the direction of the jet ejection must be determined either by the angular momentum axis of the disc or the spin axis of the black hole). The jet production mechanism and indeed the jet composition on very small scales are not known at present, as observations cannot distinguish between the various theoretical models that exist. The jets have the most obvious observational effects in the radio waveband, where Very Long Baseline Interferometry can be used to study the synchrotron radiation they emit down to sub-parsec scales. However, they radiate in all wavebands from the radio through to the gamma-ray via the synchrotron and inverse-Compton process, and so AGN with jets have a second potential source of any observed continuum radiation.

Radiatively inefficient AGN

Finally, it is important to bear in mind that there exists a class of 'radiatively inefficient' solutions to the equations that govern accretion. The most widely known of these is the accretion-dominated advection flow (ADAF, Narayan & Yi 1994) but others exist. In this type of accretion, which is important for accretion rates well below the Eddington limit, the accreting matter does not form a thin disc and consequently does not radiate away the energy that it has acquired in moving close to the black hole. Radiatively inefficient accretion has been used to explain the lack of strong AGN-type radiation from massive black holes in the centres of elliptical galaxies in clusters, where otherwise we might expect high accretion rates and corresponding high luminosities (Fabian & Rees 1995). Radiatively inefficient AGN would be expected to lack many of the characteristic features of standard AGN with an accretion disc.

Observational characteristics

There is no single observational signature of an AGN. The list below covers some of the historically important features that have allowed systems to be identified as AGN.

  • Nuclear optical continuum emission. This is visible whenever we have a direct view of the accretion disc. Jets can also contribute to this component of the AGN emission. The optical emission has a roughly power-law dependence on wavelength.
  • Nuclear infra-red emission. This is visible whenever the accretion disc and its environment are obscured by gas and dust close to the nucleus and then re-emitted ('reprocessing'). As it is thermal emission, it can be distinguished from any jet or disc-related component.
  • Broad optical emission lines. These come from cold material close to the central black hole. The lines are broad because the emitting material is moving with high speeds.
  • Narrow optical emission lines. These come from more distant cold material, and so are narrower than the broad lines.
  • Radio continuum emission. This is always due to a jet. It shows a spectrum characteristic of synchrotron radiation.
  • X-ray continuum emission. This can arise both from a jet and from the hot corona of the accretion disc via scattering processes: in both cases it shows a power-law spectrum. In some radio-quiet AGN there is a `soft excess' in the X-ray emission in addition to the power-law component. The origin of the soft excess is not clear at present.
  • X-ray line emission. This is a result of illumination of cold heavy elements by the X-ray continuum. Fluorescence gives rise to various emission lines, the best-known of which is the iron feature around 6.4 keV. This line may be narrow or broad: relativistically broadened iron lines can be used to study the dynamics of the accretion disc very close to the nucleus and therefore the nature of the central black hole.

Types of active galaxy

It is convenient to divide AGN into two classes, conventionally called radio-quiet and radio-loud. In the radio-loud objects a contribution from the jet(s) and the lobes they inflate dominates the luminosity of the AGN, at least at radio wavelengths but possibly at some or all others. Radio-quiet objects are simpler since jet and jet-related emission can be neglected.

AGN terminology is often confusing, since the distinctions between different types of AGN sometimes reflects historical differences in how objects were discovered or initially classified, rather than real physical differences.

Radio-quiet AGN

  • Low-ionization nuclear emission-line regions (LINERs). As the name suggests, these systems show only weak nuclear emission-line regions, and no other signatures of AGN emission. It is debatable whether all such systems are true AGN (powered by accretion on to a supermassive black hole). If they are, they constitute the lowest-luminosity class of radio-quiet AGN. Some may be radio-quiet analogues of the low-excitation radio galaxies (see below).
  • Seyfert galaxies. Seyferts were the earliest distinct class of AGN to be identified. They show optical nuclear continuum emission, narrow and (sometimes) broad emission lines, (sometimes) strong nuclear X-ray emission and sometimes a weak small-scale radio jet. Originally they were divided into two types known as Seyfert 1 and 2: Seyfert 1s show strong broad emission lines while Seyfert 2s do not, and Seyfert 1s are more likely to show strong low-energy X-ray emission. Various forms of elaboration on this scheme exist: for example, Seyfert 1s with relatively narrow broad lines are sometimes referred to as narrow-line Seyfert 1s. The host galaxies of Seyferts are usually spiral or irregular galaxies.
  • Radio-quiet quasars/QSOs. These are essentially more luminous versions of Seyfert 1s: the distinction is arbitrary and is usually expressed in terms of a limiting optical magnitude. Quasars were originally 'quasi-stellar' in optical images, and so had optical luminosities that were greater than that of their host galaxy. They always show strong optical continuum emission, X-ray continuum emission, and broad and narrow optical emission lines. Some astronomers use the term QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) for this class of AGN, reserving 'quasar' for radio-loud objects, while others talk about radio-quiet and radio-loud quasars. The host galaxies of quasars can be spirals, irregulars or ellipticals: there is a correlation between the quasar's luminosity and the mass of its host galaxy, so that the most luminous quasars inhabit the most massive galaxies (ellipticals).
  • 'Quasar 2s'. By analogy with Seyfert 2s, these are objects with quasar-like luminosities but without strong optical nuclear continuum emission or broad line emission. They are hard to find in surveys, though a number of possible candidate quasar 2s have been identified.

Radio-loud AGN

See main article radio galaxies for discussion of the large-scale behaviour of the jets. Here only the active nuclei are discussed.

  • Radio-loud quasars. These behave exactly like radio-quiet quasars with the addition of emission from a jet. Thus they show strong optical continuum emission, broad and narrow emission lines, and strong X-ray emission, together with nuclear and often extended radio emission.
  • 'Blazars' (BL Lac objects and OVV quasars). These classes are distinguished by rapidly variable, polarized optical, radio and X-ray emission. BL Lac objects show no optical emission lines, broad or narrow, so that their redshifts can only be determined from features in the spectra of their host galaxies. The emission-line features may be intrinsically absent or simply swamped by the additional variable component: in the latter case, it may become visible when the variable component is at a low level (Vermeulen et al. 1995). OVV quasars behave more like standard radio-loud quasars with the addition of a rapidly variable component. In both classes of source, the variable emission is believed to originate in a relativistic jet oriented close to the line of sight. Relativistic effects amplify both the luminosity of the jet and the amplitude of variability.
  • Radio galaxies. These objects show nuclear and extended radio emission. Their other AGN properties are heterogeneous. They can broadly be divided into low-excitation and high-excitation classes (Hine & Longair 1979; Laing et al. 1994). Low-excitation objects show no strong narrow or broad emission lines, and the emission lines they do have may be excited by a different mechanism (Baum, Zirbel & O'Dea 1995). Their optical and X-ray nuclear emission is consistent with originating purely in a jet (Chiaberge, Capetti & Celotti 2002; Hardcastle, Evans & Croston 2006). They may be the best current candidates for AGN with radiatively inefficient accretion. By contrast, high-excitation objects (narrow-line radio galaxies) have emission-line spectra similar to those of Seyfert 2s. The small class of broad-line radio galaxies, which show relatively strong nuclear optical continuum emission (Grandi & Osterbrock 1978) probably includes some objects that are simply low-luminosity radio-loud quasars. The host galaxies of radio galaxies, whatever their emission-line type, are essentially always ellipticals.


Unified models of AGN unite two or more classes of objects, based on the traditional observational classifications, by proposing that they are really a single type of physical object observed under different conditions. The currently favoured unified models are 'orientation-based unified models' meaning that they propose that the apparent differences between different types of objects arise simply because of their different orientations to the observer. For an overview of these see (Antonucci 1993) and (Urry & Padovani 1995), though some details in the discussion below have emerged since these reviews were written.

Radio-quiet unification

At low luminosities, the objects to be unified are Seyfert galaxies. The unified models propose that in Seyfert 1s the observe has a direct view of the active nucleus. In Seyfert 2s it is observed through an obscuring structure which prevents a direct view of the optical continuum, broad-line region or (soft) X-ray emission. The key insight of orientation-dependent accretion models is that the two types of object can be the same if only certain angles to the line of sight are observed. The standard picture is of a torus of obscuring material surrounding the accretion disc. It must be large enough to obscure the broad-line region but not large enough to obscure the narrow-line region, which is seen in both classes of object. Seyfert 2s are seen through the torus. Outside the torus there is material that can scatter some of the nuclear emission into our line of sight, allowing us to see some optical and X-ray continuum and, in some cases, broad emission lines -- which are strongly polarized, showing that they have been scattered and proving that some Seyfert 2s really do contain hidden Seyfert 1s. Infrared observations of the nuclei of Seyfert 2s also support this picture.

At higher luminosities, quasars take the place of Seyfert 1s, but, as already mentioned, the corresponding 'quasar 2s' are elusive at present. If they do not have the scattering component of Seyfert 2s they would be hard to detect except through their luminous narrow-line and hard X-ray emission.

Radio-loud unification

Historically work on radio-loud unification has concentrated on high-luminosity radio-loud quasars. These can be unified with narrow-line radio galaxies in a manner directly analoguous to the Seyfert 1/2 unification (but without the complication of much in the way of a reflection component: narrow-line radio galaxies show no nuclear optical continuum or reflected X-ray component, although they do occasionally show polarized broad-line emission). The large-scale radio structures of these objects provide compelling evidence that the orientation-based unified models really are true (Laing 1988: Garrington et al. 1988: Barthel 1989). X-ray evidence, where available, supports the unified picture: radio galaxies show evidence of obscuration from a torus, while quasars do not, although care must be taken since radio-loud objects also have a soft unabsorbed jet-related component, and high resolution is necessary to separate out thermal emission from the sources' large-scale hot-gas environment (e.g. Belsole, Worrall & Hardcastle 2006). At very small angles to the line of sight, relativistic beaming dominates, and we see a blazar of some variety.

However, the population of radio galaxies is completely dominated by low-luminosity, low-excitation objects. These do not show strong nuclear emission lines -- broad or narrow -- they have optical continua which appear to be entirely jet-related (Chiaberge, Capetti & Celotti 2002), and their X-ray emission is also consistent with coming purely from a jet, with no heavily absorbed nuclear component in general (Hardcastle, Evans & Croston 2006). These objects cannot be unified with quasars, even though they include some high-luminosity objects when looking at radio emission, since the torus can never hide the narrow-line region to the required extent, and since infrared studies show that they have no hidden nuclear component (e.g. Ogle, Whysong & Antonucci 2006): in fact there is no evidence for a torus in these objects at all. Most likely, they form a separate class in which only jet-related emission is important. At small angles to the line of sight, they will appear as BL Lac objects (e.g., Browne 1983).

Cosmological uses and evolution

For a long time, active galaxies held all the records for the highest-redshift objects known, because of their high luminosity (either in the optical or the radio): they still have a role to play in studies of the early universe, but it is now recognised that by its nature an AGN gives a highly biased picture of the 'typical' high-redshift galaxy.

More interesting is the study of the evolution of the AGN population. Most luminous classes of AGN (radio-loud and radio-quiet) seem to have been much more numerous in the early universe. This suggests (1) that massive black holes formed early on and (2) that the conditions for the formation of luminous AGN were more readily available in the early universe -- for example, that there was a much higher availability of cold gas near the centre of galaxies than there is now. It also implies, of course, that many objects that were once luminous quasars are now much less luminous, or entirely quiescent. The evolution of the low-luminosity AGN population is much less well constrained because of the difficulty of detecting and observing these objects at high redshifts.


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See also