An active galactic nucleus (AGN) is a compact region at the center of a galaxy that has a much higher than normal luminosity over at least some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with characteristics indicating that the luminosity is not produced by stars. Such excess non-stellar emission has been observed in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. A galaxy hosting an AGN is called an "active galaxy". The radiation from an AGN is believed to result from the accretion of matter by a supermassive black hole at the center of its host galaxy.
Active galactic nuclei 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 puts constraints on models of the cosmos.
The observed characteristics of an AGN depend on several properties such as the mass of the central black hole, the rate of gas accretion onto the black hole, the orientation of the accretion disk, the degree of obscuration of the nucleus by dust, and presence or absence of jets.
Numerous subclasses of AGN have been defined based on their observed characteristics; the most powerful AGN are classified as quasars. A blazar is an AGN with a jet pointed toward the Earth, in which radiation from the jet is enhanced by relativistic beaming.
During the first half of the 20th century, photographic observations of nearby galaxies detected some characteristic signatures of AGN emission, although there was not yet a physical understanding of the nature of the AGN phenomenon. Some early observations included the first spectroscopic detection of emission lines from the nuclei of NGC 1068 and Messier 81 by Edward Fath (published in 1909), and the discovery of the jet in Messier 87 by Heber Curtis (published in 1918). Further spectroscopic studies by astronomers including Vesto Slipher, Milton Humason, and Nicholas Mayall noted the presence of unusual emission lines in some galaxy nuclei. In 1943, Carl Seyfert published a paper in which he described observations of nearby galaxies having bright nuclei that were sources of unusually broad emission lines. Galaxies observed as part of this study included NGC 1068, NGC 4151, NGC 3516, and NGC 7469. Active galaxies such as these are known as Seyfert galaxies in honor of Seyfert's pioneering work.
The development of radio astronomy was a major catalyst to understanding AGN. Some of the earliest detected radio sources are nearby active elliptical galaxies such as Messier 87 and Centaurus A. Another radio source, Cygnus A, was identified by Walter Baade and Rudolph Minkowski as a tidally distorted galaxy with an unusual emission-line spectrum, having a recessional velocity of 16,700 kilometers per second. The 3C radio survey led to further progress in discovery of new radio sources as well as identifying the visible-light sources associated with the radio emission. In photographic images, some of these objects were nearly point-like or quasi-stellar in appearance, and were classified as quasi-stellar radio sources (later abbreviated as "quasars").
A major breakthrough was the measurement of the redshift of the quasar 3C 273 by Maarten Schmidt, published in 1963. Schmidt noted that if this object was extragalactic (outside the Milky Way, at a cosmological distance) then its large redshift of 0.158 implied that it was the nuclear region of a galaxy about 100 times more powerful than other radio galaxies that had been identified. Shortly afterward, optical spectra were used to measured the redshifts of a growing number of quasars including 3C 48, even more distant at redshift 0.37.
The enormous luminosities of these quasars as well as their unusual spectral properties indicated that their power source could not be ordinary stars. Accretion of gas onto a supermassive black hole was suggested as the source of quasars' power in papers by Edwin Salpeter and Yakov Zel'Dovich in 1964. In 1969 Donald Lynden-Bell proposed that nearby galaxies contain supermassive black holes at their centers as relics of "dead" quasars, and that black hole accretion was the power source for the non-stellar emission in nearby Seyfert galaxies. In the 1960s and 1970s, early X-ray astronomy observations demonstrated that Seyfert galaxies and quasars are powerful sources of X-ray emission, which originates from the inner regions of black hole accretion disks.
Today, AGN are a major topic of astrophysical research, both observational and theoretical. AGN research encompasses observational surveys to find AGN over broad ranges of luminosity and redshift, examination of the cosmic evolution and growth of black holes, studies of the physics of black hole accretion and the emission of electromagnetic radiation from AGN, examination of the properties of jets and outflows of matter from AGN, and the impact of black hole accretion and quasar activity on galaxy evolution.
For a long time it has been argued that an AGN must be powered by accretion of mass onto massive black holes (106 to 1010 times the Solar mass). 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, and as a result, it can provide the observed high persistent luminosity. Supermassive black holes are now believed to exist in the centres of most if not all massive galaxies since the mass of the black hole correlates well with the velocity dispersion of the galactic bulge (the M–sigma relation) or with bulge luminosity. Thus AGN-like characteristics are expected whenever a supply of material for accretion comes within the sphere of influence of the central black hole.
In the standard model of AGN, cold material close to a 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 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 in turn radiates at particular emission lines. A large fraction of the AGN's radiation 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.
Some accretion discs produce jets of twin, highly collimated, and fast outflows that emerge in opposite directions from close to the disc. The direction of the jet ejection is determined either by the angular momentum axis of the accretion disc or the spin axis of the black hole. The jet production mechanism and indeed the jet composition on very small scales are not understood at present due to the resolution of astronomical instruments being too low. The jets have their most obvious observational effects in the radio waveband, where very-long-baseline interferometry can be used to study the synchrotron radiation they emit at resolutions of sub-parsec scales. However, they radiate in all wavebands from the radio through to the gamma-ray range via the synchrotron and the inverse-Compton scattering process, and so AGN jets are a second potential source of any observed continuum radiation.
There exists a class of 'radiatively inefficient' solutions to the equations that govern accretion. The most widely known of these is the Advection Dominated Accretion Flow (ADAF), but other theories 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 efficiently radiate away the energy that it acquired as it moved close to the black hole. Radiatively inefficient accretion has been used to explain the lack of strong AGN-type radiation from massive black holes at the centres of elliptical galaxies in clusters, where otherwise we might expect high accretion rates and correspondingly high luminosities. Radiatively inefficient AGN would be expected to lack many of the characteristic features of standard AGN with an accretion disc.
There is no single observational signature of an AGN. The list below covers some of the features that have allowed systems to be identified as AGN.
It is convenient to divide AGN into two classes, conventionally called radio-quiet and radio-loud. Radio-loud objects have emission contributions from both the jet(s) and the lobes that the jets inflate. These emission contributions dominate the luminosity of the AGN at radio wavelengths and possibly at some or all other wavelengths. Radio-quiet objects are simpler since jet and any jet-related emission can be neglected at all wavelengths.
AGN terminology is often confusing, since the distinctions between different types of AGN sometimes reflect historical differences in how the objects were discovered or initially classified, rather than real physical differences.
See main article Radio galaxy for a discussion of the large-scale behaviour of the jets. Here, only the active nuclei are discussed.
|Emission lines||X-rays||Excess of||Strong
|OVV||yes||no||stronger than BL Lac||yes||yes||no||yes||yes||yes||yes|
Unified models propose that different observational classes of AGN are 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. However, they are debated (see below).
At low luminosities, the objects to be unified are Seyfert galaxies. The unification models propose that in Seyfert 1s the observer has a direct view of the active nucleus. In Seyfert 2s the nucleus 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.
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 analogous 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. 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. 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, and their X-ray emission is also consistent with coming purely from a jet, with no heavily absorbed nuclear component in general. 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: 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.
In the recent literature on AGN, being subject to an intense debate, an increasing set of observations appear to be in conflict with some of the key predictions of the Unified Model, e.g. that each Seyfert 2 has an obscured Seyfert 1 nucleus (a hidden broad-line region).
Therefore, one cannot know whether the gas in all Seyfert 2 galaxies is ionized due to photoionization from a single, non-stellar continuum source in the center or due to shock-ionization from e.g. intense, nuclear starbursts. Spectropolarimetric studies reveal that only 50% of Seyfert 2s show a hidden broad-line region and thus split Seyfert 2 galaxies into two populations. The two classes of populations appear to differ by their luminosity, where the Seyfert 2s without a hidden broad-line region are generally less luminous. This suggests absence of broad-line region is connected to low Eddington ratio, and not to obscuration.
The covering factor of the torus might play an important role. Some torus models predict how Seyfert 1s and Seyfert 2s can obtain different covering factors from a luminosity- and accretion rate- dependence of the torus covering factor, something supported by studies in the x-ray of AGN. The models also suggest an accretion-rate dependence of the broad-line region and provide a natural evolution from more active engines in Seyfert 1s to more “dead” Seyfert 2s and can explain the observed break-down of the unified model at low luminosities and the evolution of the broad-line region.
While studies of single AGN show important deviations from the expectations of the unified model, results from statistical tests have been contradictory. The most important short-coming of statistical tests by direct comparisons of statistical samples of Seyfert 1s and Seyfert 2s is the introduction of selection biases due to anisotropic selection criteria.
Studying neighbour galaxies rather than the AGN themselves first suggested the numbers of neighbours were larger for Seyfert 2s than for Seyfert 1s, in contradiction with the Unified Model. Today, having overcome the previous limitations of small sample sizes and anisotropic selection, studies of neighbours of hundreds to thousands of AGN have shown that the neighbours of Seyfert 2s are intrinsically dustier and more star-forming than Seyfert 1s and a connection between AGN type, host galaxy morphology and collision history. Moreover, angular clustering studies of the two AGN types confirm that they reside in different environments and show that they reside within dark matter halos of different masses. The AGN environment studies are in line with evolution-based unification models where Seyfert 2s transform into Seyfert 1s during merger, supporting earlier models of merger-driven activation of Seyfert 1 nuclei.
While controversy about the soundness of each individual study still prevails, they all agree on that the simplest viewing-angle based models of AGN Unification are incomplete. Seyfert-1 and Seyfert-2 seem to differ in star formation and AGN engine power.
While it still might be valid that an obscured Seyfert 1 can appear as a Seyfert 2, not all Seyfert 2s must host an obscured Seyfert 1. Understanding whether it is the same engine driving all Seyfert 2s, the connection to radio-loud AGN, the mechanisms of the variability of some AGN that vary between the two types at very short time scales, and the connection of the AGN type to small- and large-scale environment remain important issues to incorporate into any unified model of active galactic nuclei.
For a long time, active galaxies held all the records for the highest-redshift objects known either in the optical or the radio spectrum, because of their high luminosity. They still have a role to play in studies of the early universe, but it is now recognised that an AGN gives a highly biased picture of the "typical" high-redshift galaxy.
Most luminous classes of AGN (radio-loud and radio-quiet) seem to have been much more numerous in the early universe. This suggests that massive black holes formed early on and that the conditions for the formation of luminous AGN were more common in the early universe, such as a much higher availability of cold gas near the centre of galaxies than at present. It also implies 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 understood due to the difficulty of observing these objects at high redshifts.
3C 35 is a giant Radio galaxy with an active galactic nucleus (AGN). It is classified as a Fanaroff & Riley type II radio galaxy. It is located in the constellation Cassiopeia.
It is listed as a quasar by the SIMBAD astronomical database.3C 449
3C 449 is a low-redshift (z = 0.017) Fanaroff and Riley class I radio galaxy. It is thought to contain a highly warped circumnuclear disk surrounding the central active galactic nucleus (AGN). The name signifies that it was the 449th object (ordered by right ascension) of the Third Cambridge Catalog of Radio Sources (3C), published in 1959.3C 66B
3C 66B is an elliptical Fanaroff and Riley class 1 radio galaxy located in the constellation Andromeda. With an estimated redshift of 0.021258, the galaxy is about 300 million light-years away.The orbital motion of 3C 66B showed supposed evidence for a supermassive black hole binary (SMBHB) with a period of 1.05 ± 0.03 years,
but this claim was later proven wrong (at 95% certainty).Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light years away, is the largest giant elliptical galaxy near the Earth, and also contains an active galactic nucleus. The smooth jet of 3C 66B rivals that of M87.3C 66B is an outlying member of Abell 347 which is part of the Perseus-Pisces Supercluster.NGC 1283
NGC 1283 is an elliptical galaxy located about 250 million light-years away in the constellation Perseus. The galaxy was discovered by astronomer Guillaume Bigourdan on October 23, 1884 and is a member of the Perseus Cluster. It also contains an active galactic nucleus.NGC 2681
NGC 2681 is a lenticular galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major. The galaxy lies 50 million light years away from Earth, which means, given its apparent dimensions, that NGC 2681 is approximately 55,000 light years across. NGC 2681 has an active galactic nucleus and it is a type 3 Seyfert galaxy. Its nucleus is also a low-ionization nuclear emission-line region.NGC 2681 has possibly three bars, with a relatively large bar at the outer side. Because the galaxy is seen nearly face-on, the bar like structures cannot be projection effects. From earth based observations, in B-I images the galaxy showed neither grand design spirals nor a ring, but only two symmetrical spiral arms starting from the end of the primary bar. Ia Hα images some HII regions were observed in the spiral arms. A dust spiral is seen in Hubble space telescope images extending to the centre. The lack of stellar gradient in the central regions and the data from Faint Object Camera, Faint Object Spectrograph and International Ultraviolet Explorer indicate that the galaxy had a starburst event approximately one billion years ago, possibly after the tidal interaction with another galaxy, which involved all the galaxy.Dynamical modeling of the velocity dispersions suggests that NGC 2681 hosts a supermassive black hole whose upper mass limit was set at 6×107 M⊙. As observed from Chandra X-ray Observatory, NGC 2681 displayed three stellar sources within the central kiloparsec of the galaxy. The active galactic nucleus had luminosity 1.8 × 1038 erg/s, which accounts for approximately the 20% of the total luminosity of the central kiloparsec.NGC 2782
NGC 2782 is a peculiar spiral galaxy that formed after a galaxy merger in the constellation Lynx. The galaxy lies 75 million light years away from Earth, which means, given its apparent dimensions, that NGC 2782 is approximately 100,000 light years across. NGC 2782 has an active galactic nucleus and it is a starburst and a type 1 Seyfert galaxy. NGC 2782 is mentioned in the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies in the category galaxies with adjacent loops.NGC 3259
NGC 3259 is a barred spiral galaxy located approximately 90 million light-years from Earth, in the Ursa Major constellation. It has the morphological classification SAB(rs)bc, which indicates that it is a spiral galaxy with a weak bar across the nucleus (SAB), an incomplete inner ring structure circling the bar (rs), and moderate to loosely wound spiral arms (bc). This galaxy is a known source of X-ray emission and it has an active galactic nucleus of the Seyfert 2 type.NGC 4261
NGC 4261 is an elliptical galaxy located around 100 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. The galaxy is a member of its own galaxy group known as the NGC 4261 group.The active galactic nucleus (AGN) contains a 400-million-solar mass supermassive black hole (SMBH) with an 800-light-year-wide spiral-shaped disk of dust fueling it.The galaxy is estimated to be about 60 thousand light-years across, and a jet eminating from it is estimated to span about 88 thousand light-years.NGC 4725
NGC 4725 is an intermediate barred spiral galaxy with a prominent ring structure about 40 million light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices. NGC 4725 is a Seyfert Galaxy, suggesting an active galactic nucleus containing a supermassive black hole.
NGC 4725 is the brightest member of the Coma I Group.NGC 4762
NGC 4762 is an edge-on lenticular galaxy in the constellation Virgo. It is at a distance of 60 million light years and is a member of the Virgo Cluster. The edge-on view of this particular galaxy, originally considered to be a barred spiral galaxy, makes it difficult to determine its true shape, but it is considered that the galaxy consists of four main components — a central bulge, a bar, a thick disc and an outer ring. The galaxy's disc is asymmetric and warped, which could be explained by NGC 4762 mergering with a smaller galaxy in the past. The remains of this former companion may then have settled within NGC 4762's disc, redistributing the gas and stars and so changing the disc's morphology.NGC 4762 contains a Liner-type active galactic nucleus, a highly energetic central region. This nucleus is detectable due to its particular spectral line emission, allowing astronomers to measure the composition of the region.NGC 4762 forms a non-interacting pair with the galaxy NGC 4754.NGC 4872
NGC 4872 is a barred lenticular galaxy located about 310 million light-years away in the constellation of Coma Berenices. NGC 4872 has been indicated to contain an active galactic nucleus. NGC 4872 was discovered by astronomer Heinrich d'Arrest. It is a member of the Coma Cluster.NGC 5033
NGC 5033 is an inclined spiral galaxy located in the constellation Canes Venatici. Distance estimates vary from between 38 and 60 million light years from the Milky Way. The galaxy has a very bright nucleus and a relatively faint disk. Significant warping is visible in the southern half of the disk. The galaxy's relatively large angular size and relatively high surface brightness make it an object that can be viewed and imaged by amateur astronomers. The galaxy's location relatively near Earth and its active galactic nucleus make it a commonly studied object for professional astronomers.NGC 5643
NGC 5643 is an intermediate spiral galaxy in constellation Lupus. It is located at a distance of circa 60 million light years from Earth, which, given its apparent dimensions, means that NGC 5643 is about 100,000 light years across. NGC 5643 has an active galactic nucleus and is a type II Seyfert galaxy.NGC 5750
NGC 5750 is a barred spiral galaxy with an active galactic nucleus in the constellation Virgo.NGC 612
NGC 612 is a lenticular galaxy in the constellation of Sculptor located approximately 388 million light-years from Earth. It is a type II Seyfert galaxy and thus has an active galactic nucleus. NGC 612 has been identified as an extremely rare example of a non-elliptical radio galaxy, hosting one of the nearest powerful FR-II radio sources.NGC 6251
NGC 6251 is an active supergiant elliptical radio galaxy in the constellation Ursa Minor, and is more than 340 million light-years away from Earth. The galaxy has a Seyfert 2 active galactic nucleus, and is one of the most extreme examples of a Seyfert galaxy. This galaxy may be associated with gamma-ray source 3EG J1621+8203, which has high-energy gamma-ray emission. It is also noted for its one-sided radio jet—one of the brightest known—discovered in 1977. The supermassive black hole at the core has a mass of (5.9±2.0)×108 M☉.NGC 669
NGC 669 is an edge-on spiral galaxy with an active galactic nucleus located 200 million light-years away in the constellation Triangulum. NGC 669 was discovered by astronomer Édouard Stephan on November 28, 1883 and is a member of Abell 262.NGC 6814
NGC 6814 is an intermediate spiral galaxy in constellation Aquila. It is located at a distance of about 75 million light years from Earth, which, given its apparent dimensions, means that NGC 6814 is about 85,000 light years across. NGC 6814 has an extremely bright nucleus and is a type 1.5 Seyfert galaxy. The galaxy is also a highly variable source of X-ray radiation. The ultraviolet and optical emission also varies, although more smoothly, with time lag of two days. The cause of the lag and the smoothing of light curves is considered to be the reprocessing of the X-rays in the accretion disk. The cause of the active galactic nucleus is suspected to be a supermassive black hole with a mass about 18 million times that of the Sun. Many regions of ionised gas are studded along the dusty spiral arms.Radio galaxy
Radio galaxies and their relatives, radio-loud quasars and blazars, are types of active galaxy nuclei that are very luminous at radio wavelengths, with luminosities up to 1039 W between 10 MHz and 100 GHz. The radio emission is due to the synchrotron process. The observed structure in radio emission is determined by the interaction between twin jets and the external medium, modified by the effects of relativistic beaming. The host galaxies are almost exclusively large elliptical galaxies. Radio-loud active galaxies can be detected at large distances, making them valuable tools for observational cosmology. Recently, much work has been done on the effects of these objects on the intergalactic medium, particularly in galaxy groups and clusters.