The Astrophysics of Active Galactic Nuclei Variability in Large Scale Spectroscopic Surveys
Ruan, John Jianfei
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More than 50 years after the initial discovery of the extragalactic nature of quasi-stellar objects (quasars) by Schmidt (1963), studies of luminous active galactic nuclei (AGN) have revolutionized our understanding of black hole growth across cosmic time, accretion and jet physics, as well as galaxy evolution and cosmology. In the coming decade, these studies will be further fueled by large (a few x10^6) samples of quasars from massive optical spectroscopic surveys (e.g., from eBOSS and DESI). These spectra will be accompanied by well-sampled photometric light curves from time-domain imaging surveys (e.g., from Pan-STARRS and LSST), enabling discovery of rare objects and new time-domain phenomena. Current spectroscopic and imaging surveys have well-established that nearly all Type 1 quasars are optically variable, although the origin of this variability is still unknown. The primary goal of this thesis is to investigate various AGN variability phenomena in the UV/optical, to understanding their origin. In particular, I investigate the origin of 10-20% flux variability ubiquitously observed in quasars, the apparent change in accretion states observed in ‘transition blazars’, as well as the rapid fading observed in the recently-discovered ‘changing-look quasars’ phenomenon. I also prepare for the science enabled by the large samples of AGN that will be discovered in future time-domain imaging surveys, by characterizing the unique properties of variability-selected AGN. The primary technique I use in this dissertation to probe AGN variability is repeat optical spectroscopy. AGN optical spectra contain a wealth of information about the central engine, encoded in the properties of the emission lines, absorption lines, and continuum emission. Repeat optical spectroscopy can further probe the time-variable nature of these emission components, but this has previously been little explored in comparison to single-epoch spectroscopy. One notable exception in repeat AGN spectroscopy is the well-established reverberation mapping technique of mapping the size of AGN broad line regions; this has lead to the development of black hole mass estimates based on broad Balmer emission line widths in single-epoch spectroscopy. However, these and other studies based on repeat AGN spectroscopy are only available for small samples of a few dozen AGN at low redshifts, due to the expensive nature of repeat spectroscopy for large samples of faint quasars at higher redshifts. The development of multi-object spectrographs now have the ability to do repeat spectroscopy for large numbers of quasars, opening new windows into AGN astrophysics in the time-domain. Surveys dedicated to repeat quasar spectroscopy, including currently in SDSS-IV and in the future in SDSS-V, will fuel the early science results from this dissertation. In this dissertation, I first use SDSS repeat spectroscopy of quasars to quantify the bluer-when-brighter trend of wavelength-dependent quasar spectral variability, and use it to con- strain simple models of quasar variability. In particular, I test whether the observed spectral variability is consistent with recent toy models of inhomogeneous accretion disks with large temperature fluctuations. These models provide a natural explanation for quasar UV/optical variability, and the first to be consistent with measurements of quasar accretion disk sizes and characteristic timescales of variability. I show that the observed spectral variability can be reproduced by strongly inhomogeneous disks with large temperature fluctuations. I then use SDSS repeat spectroscopy to investigate the origin of the ‘transition blazars’ phenomenon, which is observed in a handful of AGN with relativistic jets aligned with the line of sight. In transition blazars, the blazars appear to switch between BL Lac objects and Flat-Spectrum Radio Quasars (FSRQs) classifications, which correspond to low- and high- accretion rate states, respectively. I show that transition blazars are FSRQs with especially strong beaming, such that the strongly-beamed continuum swamps the broad emission lines. This occasionally causes the broad emission lines to disappear and reappear, producing the transitional behavior. Furthermore, I mine SDSS repeat spectroscopy to uncover the origin of the recently-discovered ‘changing-look quasars’ phenomenon. Repeat optical spectroscopy of this new class of objects show dramatic transitions from luminous broad line quasars into quiescent galaxies or low-luminosity AGN. Surprisingly, these changes occur over timescales of just a few years, a factor of >10^4 faster than both theoretical expectations and scaling spectral state transition timescales in X-ray binaries to 10^8 M_sun supermassive black holes (SMBHs). To understand this phenomenon, I perform the first large systematic search for CL quasars and I show that the fading of the continuum and broad emission lines in CL quasars is consistent with rapidly decreasing accretion rates, while disfavoring alternative interpretations including changes in intrinsic dust extinction and transient tidal disruption events or supernovae. Finally, future time-domain imaging surveys such as the ZTF and LSST will discover a few x10^7 variable objects, and AGN will constitute the majority of variable objects discovered. To understand the science enabled by these massive variability-selected samples of AGN, I utilized spectra from the Time-Domain Spectroscopic Survey (TDSS) to understand the unique properties of variability-selected quasars. TDSS is the first systematic spectroscopic survey of variable objects, and I show that variability-selected quasars complement color-based selection by selecting additional redder quasars, resulting in a smooth redshift distribution. Furthermore, I show that variability selection yields higher fractions of peculiar AGN such as broad absorption line quasars and blazars.
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