Galaxy interactions are the dominant trigger for local type 2 quasars

Pierce, J. C. S.; Tadhunter, C.; Ramos Almeida, C.; Bessiere, P.; Heaton, J. V.; Ellison, S. L.; Speranza, G.; Gordon, Y.; O'Dea, C.; Grimmett, L.; Makrygianni, L.
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Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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The triggering mechanism for the most luminous, quasar-like active galactic nuclei (AGN) remains a source of debate, with some studies favouring triggering via galaxy mergers, but others finding little evidence to support this mechanism. Here, we present deep Isaac Newton Telescope/Wide Field Camera imaging observations of a complete sample of 48 optically selected type 2 quasars - the QSOFEED sample ($L_{\rm [O\, \small {III}]}\gt 10^{8.5}\, \mathrm{L}_{\odot }$; z < 0.14). Based on visual inspection by eight classifiers, we find clear evidence that galaxy interactions are the dominant triggering mechanism for quasar activity in the local universe, with 65$^{+6}_{-7}$ per cent of the type 2 quasar hosts showing morphological features consistent with galaxy mergers or encounters, compared with only 22$^{+5}_{-4}$ per cent of a stellar-mass- and redshift-matched comparison sample of non-AGN galaxies - a 5σ difference. The type 2 quasar hosts are a factor of 3.0$^{+0.5}_{-0.8}$ more likely to be morphologically disturbed than their matched non-AGN counterparts, similar to our previous results for powerful 3CR radio AGN of comparable [O III] emission-line luminosity and redshift. In contrast to the idea that quasars are triggered at the peaks of galaxy mergers as the two nuclei coalesce, and only become visible post-coalescence, the majority of morphologically disturbed type 2 quasar sources in our sample are observed in the pre-coalescence phase (61$^{+8}_{-9}$ per cent). We argue that much of the apparent ambiguity that surrounds observational results in this field is a result of differences in the surface brightness depths of the observations, combined with the effects of cosmological surface brightness dimming.
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Supermassive black holes modify the distribution of molecular gas in the central regions of galaxies. Credit: HST and C. Ramos Almeida.
Nuclear Activity in Galaxies: a 3D Perspective from the Nucleus to the Outskirts

This project consists of two main research lines. First, the study of quasar-driven outflows in luminous and nearby obscured active galactic nuclei (AGN) and the impact that they have on their massive host galaxies (AGN feedback). To do so, we have obtained Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) infrared and optical observations with the instruments

Ramos Almeida