Active galactic nucleus (AGN) is a compact region at the center of a galaxy that has a much-higher-than-normal luminosity over at least some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with characteristics indicating that the luminosity is not produced by stars.
Such excess non-stellar emission has been observed in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. A galaxy hosting an AGN is called an “active galaxy”. The non-stellar radiation from an AGN is theorized to result from the accretion of matter by a supermassive black hole at the center of its host galaxy.
Active galactic nuclei are the most luminous persistent sources of electromagnetic radiation in the universe, and as such can be used as a means of discovering distant objects; their evolution as a function of cosmic time also puts constraints on models of the cosmos.
For a long time it has been argued that an AGN must be powered by accretion of mass onto massive black holes (10^6 to 10^10 times the Solar mass). AGN are both compact and persistently extremely luminous. Accretion can potentially give very efficient conversion of potential and kinetic energy to radiation, and a massive black hole has a high Eddington luminosity, and as a result, it can provide the observed high persistent luminosity.
Supermassive black holes are now believed to exist in the centres of most if not all massive galaxies since the mass of the black hole correlates well with the velocity dispersion of the galactic bulge (the M–sigma relation) or with bulge luminosity. Thus AGN-like characteristics are expected whenever a supply of material for accretion comes within the sphere of influence of the central black hole.
Numerous subclasses of AGN have been defined based on their observed characteristics; the most powerful AGN are classified as quasars. A blazar is an AGN with a jet pointed toward the Earth, in which radiation from the jet is enhanced by relativistic beaming.
There is no single observational signature of an AGN. This list covers some of the features that have allowed systems to be identified as AGN.
- Nuclear optical continuum emission. This is visible whenever there is a direct view of the accretion disc. Jets can also contribute to this component of the AGN emission. The optical emission has a roughly power-law dependence on wavelength.
- Nuclear infra-red emission. This is visible whenever the accretion disc and its environment are obscured by gas and dust close to the nucleus and then re-emitted (‘reprocessing’). As it is thermal emission, it can be distinguished from any jet or disc-related emission.
- Broad optical emission lines. These come from cold material close to the central black hole. The lines are broad because the emitting material is revolving around the black hole with high speeds causing a range of Doppler shifts of the emitted photons.
- Narrow optical emission lines. These come from more distant cold material, and so are narrower than the broad lines.
- Radio continuum emission. This is always due to a jet. It shows a spectrum characteristic of synchrotron radiation.
- X-ray continuum emission. This can arise both from a jet and from the hot corona of the accretion disc via a scattering process: in both cases it shows a power-law spectrum. In some radio-quiet AGN there is an excess of soft X-ray emission in addition to the power-law component. The origin of the soft X-rays is not clear at present.
- X-ray line emission. This is a result of illumination of cold heavy elements by the X-ray continuum that causes fluorescence of X-ray emission lines, the best-known of which is the iron feature around 6.4 keV.