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Active Galactic Nuclei Are More Powerful Than Previously Thought

Posted by Guy Pirro   02/10/2023 02:05AM

Active Galactic Nuclei Are More Powerful Than Previously Thought

Edge-on view of an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) -- This artist’s impression illustrates high speed jets ejected from a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. The outflow of plasma is the result of the extraction of energy from a supermassive black hole’s rotation as it consumes the disc of swirling material and dust that surrounds it. The relativistic jets, which have emissions in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray, and gamma ray wavebands, travel at close to the speed of light, making them the fastest and most powerful astronomical objects known. Numerous subclasses of AGN have been defined based on observed characteristics. The most powerful AGN is classified as a quasar. A blazar is simply a quasar with a jet that is pointed directly towards the Earth. (Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble, L. Calçada - ESO)


Active Galactic Nuclei Are More Powerful Than Previously Thought

A new study indicates that scientists have substantially underestimated the energy output of active galactic nuclei by not recognizing the extent to which their light is dimmed by dust.

Powered by supermassive black holes swallowing matter in the centers of galaxies, active galactic nuclei are the most powerful compact steady sources of energy in the universe. The brightest active galactic nuclei have long been known to far outshine the combined light of the billions of stars in their host galaxies. Although the possibility of dust dimming the light from active galactic nuclei has been recognized for a long time, the amount has been considered controversial and was widely believed to be negligible.



Now, the new research reveals that the energy output of active galactic nuclei is underestimated. The team reached this conclusion by studying the reddening effect of dust on the light from one of the most well studied active galactic nuclei, known as NGC 5548. Just as the Earth’s atmosphere makes the Sun appear redder as well as dimmer at sunset, so dust in active galactic nuclei also makes them appear redder than they really are. The amount of reddening correlates with the amount of dimming.

Scientists quantify the colors of an object by measuring the ratios of the intensity of its light at different wavelengths. While we know what the un-reddened color of the Sun is, there has been much debate over the un-reddened colors of the various types of emission from active galactic nuclei. This is because, although simple theories predict the intrinsic, un-reddened colors, there were doubts about whether these simple theories applied to active galactic nuclei.



In the new study of NGC 5548, the UCSC researchers used seven different indicators of the amount of dust and found them all to be in good agreement. Furthermore, the dimming of NGC 5548 due to dust was found to be large, more than ten times the dimming caused by dust as we look out of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

The colors of NGC 5548 are typical of other active galactic nuclei, which has wide- ranging implications. Because of the dimming effects of dust, active galactic nuclei are even more powerful than had been realized. The results imply that in the ultraviolet, where most of the energy is radiated, a typical active galactic nucleus is putting out an order of magnitude more energy than previously thought.



Another implication is that active galactic nuclei are very similar, and what had hitherto been thought to be major fundamental differences between them are really just the consequences of different amounts of reddening by dust. 

“When there are intervening small particles along our line of sight, this makes things behind them look dimmer. We see this at sunset on any clear day when the sun looks fainter,” said Dr Martin Gaskell, a research associate in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the paper. “The good agreement between the different indicators of the amount of reddening was a pleasant surprise,” said Gaskell. “It strongly supports simple theories of emission from active galactic nuclei. Exotic explanations of colors are not needed. This makes life simpler for researchers and is speeding up our understanding of what happens as black holes swallow material,” Gaskell said.


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