Link Between Accretion Mode and Environment in Radio-Loud Active Galaxies Revealed

A massive galaxy cluster about 3 billion light years from Earth.

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the galaxy cluster Abell 2125, showing its complex of galaxies and very hot gas clouds in the process of merging. Some galaxies in clusters host active black-hole nuclei that are ejecting jets of particles and emitting at radio wavelengths. Credit: NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D.Wang et al.

A new study from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reveals evidence that the cluster environment plays an important role in determining the nature of accretion onto the black hole.

The nucleus of an active galaxy contains a massive black hole that is vigorously accreting material. In the process, the nucleus typically ejects jets of rapidly moving charged particles that radiate brightly at many wavelengths, in particular radio wavelengths. Active galaxies display a range of dramatically different properties and one categorization uses the radio emission, finding one class that is bright in the radio and a second group that is comparatively faint. Astronomers suspect that the reason for the difference is a different rate of accretion onto the central black hole, but there are other activities that also seem to correlate with the radio emission including nearby star formation, for example, or the age of the galaxy. Astronomers are therefore trying to identify the ones that might be causal.

Feedback from the intergalactic medium onto a galaxy’s nucleus has recently been identified as an important driver of galaxy evolution, and the question naturally arises about the role of such feedback in a galaxy’s radio activity and the accompanying effects. CfA astronomers Ralph Kraft and Dan Evans and their colleagues used the Chandra X-Ray Telescope in the first systematic X-ray study of the cluster environment of radio galaxies all dating from the same epoch. The X-ray emission is the key to understanding how the gas accretes onto the black hole.

The team observed fifty-five radio emitting sources spanning a factor of a thousand in radio luminosity, twenty-five of them classified as bright. They found that the bright radio sources show evidence of high accretion from a circumnuclear disk. The faint sources, on the other hand, have a more uncertain mechanism, perhaps the chaotic accretion of cool gas clouds; significantly, their radio emission strength is strongly correlated with the cluster richness and central density, while no such correlations were found for the bright sources. The scientists conclude that there are strong environmental differences between these two classes consistent with thinking that the cluster environment supports the fueling of emission. This evidence has prompted the team to study next the relationships between the gas in the intracluster medium and the other phenomena associated with the two classes.

Reference: “The Link between Accretion Mode and Environment in Radio-Loud Active Galaxies” by J. Ineson, J. H. Croston, M. J. Hardcastle, R. P. Kraft, D. A. Evans and M. Jarvis, 1 November 2015, MNRAS.
DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv1807

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