AGNs As A New Standard Candle?

Hubble Space Telescope image of a 5000 light-year (1.5 kiloparsec) long jet being ejected from the active nucleus of the active galaxy M87, a radio galaxy. The blue synchrotron radiation of the jet contrasts with the yellow starlight from the host galaxy.


Nope. A standard candle isn’t the same red, green, blue, yellow and omni-present pink wax sticks that decorate your every day birthday cake. Until now a standard candle meant a Cepheid variable star – or more recently – a Type 1a supernova. But something new happens almost every day in astronomy, doesn’t it? So start thinking about how an active galactic nucleus could be used to determine distance…

“Accurate distances to celestial objects are key to establishing the age and energy density of the Universe and the nature of dark energy.” says Darach Watson (et al). “A distance measure using active galactic nuclei (AGN) has been sought for more than forty years, as they are extremely luminous and can be observed at very large distances.”

So how is it done? As we know, active galactic nuclei are home to supermassive black holes which unleash powerful radiation. When this radiation ionizes nearby gas clouds, they also emit their own light signature. With both emissions in range of data gathering telescopes, all that’s needed is a way to measure the time it takes between the radiation signal and the ionization point. The process is called reverberation mapping.

“We use the tight relationship between the luminosity of an AGN and the radius of its broad line region established via reverberation mapping to determine the luminosity distances to a sample of 38 AGN.” says Watson. “All reliable distance measures up to now have been limited to moderate redshift — AGN will, for the first time, allow distances to be estimated to z~4, where variations of dark energy and alternate gravity theories can be probed.”

The AGN Hubble diagram. The luminosity distance indicator =pF is plotted as a function of redshift for 38 AGN with H lag measurements. On the right axis the luminosity distance and distance modulus (m-M) are shown using the surface brightness fluctuations distance to NGC3227 as a calibrator. The current best cosmology is plotted as a solid line. The line is not fit to the data but clearly follows the data well. Cosmologies with no dark energy components are plotted as dashed and dotted lines. The lower panel shows the logarithm of the ratio of the data compared to the current cosmology on the left axis, with the same values but in magnitudes on the right. The red arrow indicates the correction for internal extinction for NGC3516. The green arrow shows where NGC7469 would lie using the revised lag estimate. NGC7469 is our largest outlier and is believed to be an example of an object with a misidentified lag.

The team hasn’t taken their research “lightly”. It means careful calculations using known factors and repeating the results with other variables thrown into the mix. Even uncertainty…

“The scatter due to observational uncertainty can be reduced significantly. A major advantage held by AGN is that they can be observed repeatedly and the distance to any given object substantially refined.” explains Watson. “The ultimate limit of the accuracy of the method will rely on how the BLR (broad-line emitting region) responds to changes in the luminosity of the central source. The current tight radius-luminosity relationship indicates that the ionisation parameter and the gas density are both close to constant across our sample.”

At the first standard candle we discovered the Universe was expanding. At the second we learned it was accelerating. Now we’re looking back to just 750 million years after the Big Bang. What will tomorrow bring?

Maybe a new kind of cake…

Original Story Source: A New Cosmological Distance Measure Using AGN.

J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!

Bipolar jet from a young stellar object (YSO). Credit: Gemini Observatory, artwork by Lynette Cook


It seems oddly appropriate to be writing about astrophysical jets on Thanksgiving Day, when the New York football Jets will be featured on television. In the most recent issue of Science, Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez and collaborators write about how their observations of radio emissions from young stellar objects (YSOs) shed light one of the unsolved problems in astrophysics; what are the mechanisms that form the streams of plasma known as polar jets? Although we are still early in the game, Carrasco-Gonzalez et al have moved us closer to the goal line with their discovery.

Astronomers see polar jets in many places in the Universe. The largest polar jets are those seen in active galaxies such as quasars. They are also found in gamma-ray bursters, cataclysmic variable stars, X-ray binaries and protostars in the process of becoming main sequence stars. All these objects have several features in common: a central gravitational source, such as a black hole or white dwarf, an accretion disk, diffuse matter orbiting around the central mass, and a strong magnetic field.

Relativistic jet from an AGN. Credit: Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

When matter is emitted at speeds approaching the speed of light, these jets are called relativistic jets. These are normally the jets produced by supermassive black holes in active galaxies. These jets emit energy in the form of radio waves produced by electrons as they spiral around magnetic fields, a process called synchrotron emission. Extremely distant active galactic nuclei (AGN) have been mapped out in great detail using radio interferometers like the Very Large Array in New Mexico. These emissions can be used to estimate the direction and intensity of AGNs magnetic fields, but other basic information, such as the velocity and amount of mass loss, are not well known.

On the other hand, astronomers know a great deal about the polar jets emitted by young stars through the emission lines in their spectra. The density, temperature and radial velocity of nearby stellar jets can be measured very well. The only thing missing from the recipe is the strength of the magnetic field. Ironically, this is the one thing that we can measure well in distant AGN. It seemed unlikely that stellar jets would produce synchrotron emissions since the temperatures in these jets are usually only a few thousand degrees. The exciting news from Carrasco-Gonzalez et al is that jets from young stars do emit synchrotron radiation, which allowed them to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the massive Herbig-Haro object, HH 80-81, a protostar 10 times as massive and 17,000 times more luminous than our Sun.

Finally obtaining data related to the intensity and orientation of the magnetic field lines in YSO’s and their similarity to the characteristics of AGN suggests we may be that much closer to understanding the common origin of all astrophysical jets. Yet another thing to be thankful for on this day.

Supermassive Black Holes Spinning Backwards Create Death Ray Jets?

Centaurus A. Image credit: NASA

Why do some of the supermassive black holes in active galactic nuclei create back-to-back jets that can vaporize entire solar systems, while others have no jets at all?

Dan Evans, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) thinks he knows why; it’s because the jet-producing supermassive black holes are spinning backwards, relative to their accretion disks.

Radio image of a typical DRAGN, showing the main features (Image credit:C. L. Carilli)

For two years, Evans has been comparing several dozen galaxies whose black holes host powerful jets (these galaxies are known as radio-loud active galactic nuclei, or AGN, and are often DRAGNs – double radio source associated with galactic nucleus) to those galaxies with supermassive black holes that do not eject jets. All black holes – those with and without jets – feature accretion disks, the clumps of dust and gas rotating just outside the event horizon. By examining the light reflected in the accretion disk of an AGN black hole, he concluded that jets may form right outside black holes that have a retrograde spin – or which spin in the opposite direction from their accretion disk. Although Evans and a colleague recently hypothesized that the gravitational effects of black hole spin may have something to do with why some have jets, Evans now has observational results to support the theory in a paper published in the Feb. 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Although Evans has suspected for nearly five years that retrograde black holes with jets are missing the innermost portion of their accretion disk, it wasn’t until last year that computational advances meant that he could analyze data collected between late 2007 and early 2008 by the Suzaku observatory, a Japanese satellite launched in 2005 with collaboration from NASA, to provide an example to support the theory. With these data, Evans and colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Yale University, Keele University and the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom analyzed the spectra of the active galactic nucleus with a pair of jets located about 800 million light years away in an AGN named 3C 33.

1477 MHz image of 3C 33 (Credit: Leahy & Perley (1991))

“It’s the first convincing galaxy of this type seen at this angle where the result is pretty robust,” said Patrick Ogle, an assistant research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, who studies AGN. Ogle believes Evans’s theory regarding retrograde spin is among the best explanations he has heard for why some AGN contain a supermassive black hole with a jet and others don’t.

Astrophysicists can see the signatures of x-ray emission from the inner regions of the accretion disk, which is located close to the edge of a black hole, as a result of a super hot atmospheric ring called a corona that lies above the disk and emits light (electromagnetic radiation) that an observatory like Suzaku can detect. In addition to this direct light, a fraction of light passes down from the corona onto the black hole’s accretion disk and is reflected from the disk’s surface, resulting in a spectral signature pattern called the Compton reflection hump, also detected by Suzaku.

But Evans’ team never found a Compton reflection hump in the x-ray emission given off by 3C 33, a finding the researchers believe provides crucial evidence that the accretion disk for a black hole with a jet is truncated, meaning it doesn’t extend as close to the center of the black hole with a jet as it does for a black hole that does not have a jet. The absence of this innermost portion of the disk means that nothing can reflect the light from the corona, which explains why observers only see a direct spectrum of x-ray light.

The researchers believe the absence may result from retrograde spin, which pushes out the orbit of the innermost portion of accretion material as a result of general relativity, or the gravitational pull between masses. This absence creates a gap between the disk and the center of the black hole that leads to the piling of magnetic fields that provide the force to fuel a jet.

While Ogle believes that the retrograde spin theory is a good explanation for Evans’ observations, he said it is far from being confirmed, and that it will take more examples with consistent results to convince the astrophysical community.

The field of research will expand considerably in August 2011 with the planned launch of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite, which is 10 to 50 times more sensitive to spectra and the Compton reflection hump than current technology. NuSTAR will help researchers conduct a “giant census” of supermassive black holes that “will absolutely revolutionize the way we look at X-ray spectra of AGN,” Evans explained. He plans to spend another two years comparing black holes with and without jets, hoping to learn more about the properties of AGN. His goal over the next decade is to determine how the spin of a supermassive black hole evolves over time.

Sources: MITnews, Evans’ Astrophysical Journal paper (preprint is arXiv:1001.0588)