The Host Galaxies of Ultra Hard X-ray Selected AGN

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One of the great mysteries surrounding active galactic nuclei (AGN) is their triggering mechanism. Since the discovery that almost all massive galaxies host nuclear supermassive black holes, it has become clear that a trigger mechanism is required to 'turn on' and continue to fuel the central black hole. While it is established that accretion processes are responsible for the energy emitted, the source of the accreting material is still controversial. Furthermore, the energy input from phases of black hole growth is thought to be a key regulator in the formation of galaxies and the establishment of various scaling relations. Theorists often invoke galaxy mergers as the violent mechanism to drive gas into the central regions and ignite luminous quasars, but among more common moderate luminosity AGN, there has been great controversy whether secular processes or mergers dominate AGN fueling.

 A survey in the ultra hard X-ray band (14--195 keV) is an important new way to answer the fundamental question of AGN fueling.  This method is independent of selection effects such as dust extinction and obscuration that plague surveys at other wavelengths because of the ability of the primary continuum to easily pass through large columns of obscuring gas and dust (<10<super>24</super> cm<super>-2</super>).  


 In this PhD, we have assembled the largest sample of ultra hard X-ray selected AGN with host galaxy optical data to date, with 185 nearby (z<0.05), moderate luminosity AGN from the Swift BAT sample.  We find that these AGN show much higher rates of both mergers and massive spirals suggesting both mergers and accretion of cold gas in late type systems are important in AGN fueling.  We also find that the most common AGN survey technique, optical line diagnostics, is heavily biased against finding AGN in mergers or spirals.   Finally, in agreement with the merger driven AGN link, we find that dual AGN systems may be more common than current observation suggest since some of them are only detected using high spatial resolution, hard X-ray (>2 keV) imaging.