Compact jets dominate the continuum emission in low-luminosity active galactic nuclei

Fernández-Ontiveros, J. A.; López-López, X.; Prieto, A.
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Astronomy and Astrophysics

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Low-luminosity active galactic nuclei (LLAGN) are special among their kind due to the profound structural changes that the central engine experiences at low accretion rates (≲ 10−3 in Eddington units). The disappearance of the accretion disc - the blue bump - leaves behind a faint optical nuclear continuum whose nature has been largely debated. This is mainly due to serious limitations on the observational side imposed by the starlight contamination from the host galaxy and the absorption by hydrogen, preventing the detection of these weak nuclei in the infrared (IR) to ultraviolet (UV) range. We addressed these challenges by combining multi-wavelength sub-arcsecond resolution observations - able to isolate the genuine nuclear continuum - with nebular lines in the mid-IR, which allowed us to indirectly probe the shape of the extreme UV continuum. We found that eight of the nearest prototype LLAGN are compatible with pure compact jet emission over more than ten orders of magnitude in frequency. This consists of self-absorbed synchrotron emission from radio to the UV plus the associated synchrotron self-Compton component dominating the emission in the UV to X-ray range. Additionally, the LLAGN continua show two particular characteristics when compared with the typical jet spectrum seen in radio galaxies: (i) a very steep spectral slope in the IR-to-optical/UV range (−3.7 < α0 < −1.3; Fν ∝ να0); and (ii) a very high turnover frequency (0.2-30 THz; 1.3 mm-10 μm) that separates the optically thick radio emission from the optically thin continuum in the IR-to-optical/UV range. These attributes can be explained if the synchrotron continuum is mainly dominated by thermalised particles at the jet base or the corona with considerably high temperatures, whereas only a small fraction of the energy (∼20%) would be distributed along the high-energy power-law tail of accelerated particles. On the other hand, the nebular gas excitation in LLAGN is in agreement with photo-ionisation from inverse Compton radiation (αx ∼ −0.7), which would dominate the nuclear continuum shortwards of ∼3000 Å, albeit a possible contribution from low-velocity shocks (< 500 km s−1) to the line excitation cannot be discarded. No sign of a standard hot accretion disc is seen in our sample of LLAGN, nevertheless, a weak cold disc (< 3000 K) is detected at the nucleus of the Sombrero galaxy, though its contribution to the nebular gas excitation is negligible. Our results suggest that the continuum emission in LLAGN is dominated at all wavelengths by undeveloped jets, powered by a thermalised particle distribution with high energies, on average. This is in agreement with their compact morphology and their high turnover frequencies. This behaviour is similar to that observed in peaked-spectrum radio sources and also compact jets in quiescent black hole X-ray binaries. Nevertheless, the presence of extended jet emission at kiloparsec scales for some of the objects in the sample is indicative of past jet activity, suggesting that these nuclei may undergo a rejuvenation event after a more active phase that produced their extended jets. These results imply that the dominant channel for energy release in LLAGN is mainly kinetic via the jet, rather than the radiative one. This has important implications in the context of galaxy evolution, since LLAGN probably represent a major but underestimated source of kinetic feedback in galaxies.

The flux distribution of the nine LLAGN in the sample are only available at the CDS via anonymous ftp to ( or via
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