skip to main content

Title: Optical variability of quasars with 20-yr photometric light curves

We study the optical gri photometric variability of a sample of 190 quasars within the SDSS Stripe 82 region that have long-term photometric coverage during ∼1998−2020 with SDSS, PanSTARRS-1, the Dark Energy Survey, and dedicated follow-up monitoring with Blanco 4m/DECam. With on average ∼200 nightly epochs per quasar per filter band, we improve the parameter constraints from a Damped Random Walk (DRW) model fit to the light curves over previous studies with 10–15 yr baselines and ≲ 100 epochs. We find that the average damping time-scale τDRW continues to rise with increased baseline, reaching a median value of ∼750 d (g band) in the rest frame of these quasars using the 20-yr light curves. Some quasars may have gradual, long-term trends in their light curves, suggesting that either the DRW fit requires very long baselines to converge, or that the underlying variability is more complex than a single DRW process for these quasars. Using a subset of quasars with better-constrained τDRW (less than 20 per cent of the baseline), we confirm a weak wavelength dependence of τDRW∝λ0.51 ± 0.20. We further quantify optical variability of these quasars over days to decades time-scales using structure function (SF) and power spectrum density (PSD) analyses. The SF and PSD measurements qualitatively confirm the measured (hundreds of days) damping time-scales from the DRW fits. However, the ensemble PSD is steeper than that of a DRW on time-scales less than ∼ a month for these luminous quasars, and this second break point correlates with the longer DRW damping time-scale.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; more » ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;   « less
Publisher / Repository:
Oxford University Press
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 164-184
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. ABSTRACT We study the optical light curves – primarily probing the variable emission from the accretion disc – of ∼900 extreme variability quasars (EVQs, with maximum flux variations more than 1 mag) over an observed-frame baseline of ∼16 yr using public data from the SDSS Stripe 82, PanSTARRS-1 and the Dark Energy Survey. We classify the multiyear long-term light curves of EVQs into three categories roughly in the order of decreasing smoothness: monotonic decreasing or increasing (3.7 per cent), single broad peak and dip (56.8 per cent), and more complex patterns (39.5 per cent). The rareness of monotonic cases suggests that the major mechanisms driving the extreme optical variability do not operate over time-scales much longer than a few years. Simulated light curves with a damped random walk model generally under-predict the first two categories with smoother long-term trends. Despite the different long-term behaviours of these EVQs, there is little dependence of the long-term trend on the physical properties of quasars, such as their luminosity, BH mass, and Eddington ratio. The large dynamic range of optical flux variability over multiyear time-scales of these EVQs allows us to explore the ensemble correlation between the short-term (≲6 months) variability and the seasonal-average flux across the decade-long baseline (the rms-mean flux relation). We find that unlike the results for X-ray variability studies, the linear short-term flux variations do not scale with the seasonal-average flux, indicating different mechanisms that drive the short-term flickering and long-term extreme variability of accretion disc emission. Finally, we present a sample of 16 EVQs, where the approximately bell-shaped large amplitude variation in the light curve can be reasonably well fit by a simple microlensing model. 
    more » « less
  2. null (Ed.)
    Abstract Binary supermassive black holes (BSBHs) are expected to be a generic byproduct from hierarchical galaxy formation. The final coalescence of BSBHs is thought to be the loudest gravitational wave (GW) siren, yet no confirmed BSBH is known in the GW-dominated regime. While periodic quasars have been proposed as BSBH candidates, the physical origin of the periodicity has been largely uncertain. Here we report discovery of a periodicity (P=1607±7 days) at 99.95% significance (with a global p-value of ∼10−3 accounting for the look elsewhere effect) in the optical light curves of a redshift 1.53 quasar, SDSS J025214.67−002813.7. Combining archival Sloan Digital Sky Survey data with new, sensitive imaging from the Dark Energy Survey, the total ∼20-yr time baseline spans ∼4.6 cycles of the observed 4.4-yr (restframe 1.7-yr) periodicity. The light curves are best fit by a bursty model predicted by hydrodynamic simulations of circumbinary accretion disks. The periodicity is likely caused by accretion rate modulation by a milli-parsec BSBH emitting GWs, dynamically coupled to the circumbinary accretion disk. A bursty hydrodynamic variability model is statistically preferred over a smooth, sinusoidal model expected from relativistic Doppler boost, a kinematic effect proposed for PG1302−102. Furthermore, the frequency dependence of the variability amplitudes disfavors Doppler boost, lending independent support to the circumbinary accretion variability hypothesis. Given our detection rate of one BSBH candidate from circumbinary accretion variability out of 625 quasars, it suggests that future large, sensitive synoptic surveys such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time may be able to detect hundreds to thousands of candidate BSBHs from circumbinary accretion with direct implications for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. 
    more » « less
  3. null (Ed.)
    Abstract Periodically variable quasars have been suggested as close binary supermassive black holes. We present a systematic search for periodic light curves in 625 spectroscopically confirmed quasars with a median redshift of 1.8 in a 4.6 deg2 overlapping region of the Dark Energy Survey Supernova (DES-SN) fields and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Stripe 82 (SDSS-S82). Our sample has a unique 20-year long multi-color (griz) light curve enabled by combining DES-SN Y6 observations with archival SDSS-S82 data. The deep imaging allows us to search for periodic light curves in less luminous quasars (down to r ∼23.5 mag) powered by less massive black holes (with masses ≳ 108.5M⊙) at high redshift for the first time. We find five candidates with significant (at >99.74% single-frequency significance in at least two bands with a global p-value of ∼7 × 10−4–3× 10−3 accounting for the look-elsewhere effect) periodicity with observed periods of ∼3–5 years (i.e., 1–2 years in rest frame) having ∼4–6 cycles spanned by the observations. If all five candidates are periodically variable quasars, this translates into a detection rate of ${\sim }0.8^{+0.5}_{-0.3}$% or ${\sim }1.1^{+0.7}_{-0.5}$ quasar per deg2. Our detection rate is 4–80 times larger than those found by previous searches using shallower surveys over larger areas. This discrepancy is likely caused by differences in the quasar populations probed and the survey data qualities. We discuss implications on the future direct detection of low-frequency gravitational waves. Continued photometric monitoring will further assess the robustness and characteristics of these candidate periodic quasars to determine their physical origins. 
    more » « less

    We analyse high-cadence data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) of the ambiguous nuclear transient (ANT) ASASSN-18el. The optical changing-look phenomenon in ASASSN-18el has been argued to be due to either a drastic change in the accretion rate of the existing active galactic nucleus (AGN) or the result of a tidal disruption event (TDE). Throughout the TESS observations, short-time-scale stochastic variability is seen, consistent with an AGN. We are able to fit the TESS light curve with a damped-random-walk (DRW) model and recover a rest-frame variability amplitude of $\hat{\sigma } = 0.93 \pm 0.02$ mJy and a rest-frame time-scale of $\tau _{DRW} = 20^{+15}_{-6}$ d. We find that the estimated τDRW for ASASSN-18el is broadly consistent with an apparent relationship between the DRW time-scale and central supermassive black hole mass. The large-amplitude stochastic variability of ASASSN-18el, particularly during late stages of the flare, suggests that the origin of this ANT is likely due to extreme AGN activity rather than a TDE.

    more » « less
  5. ABSTRACT We present a sample of 706, z < 1.5 active galactic nuclei (AGNs) selected from optical photometric variability in three of the Dark Energy Survey (DES) deep fields (E2, C3, and X3) over an area of 4.64 deg2. We construct light curves using difference imaging aperture photometry for resolved sources and non-difference imaging PSF photometry for unresolved sources, respectively, and characterize the variability significance. Our DES light curves have a mean cadence of 7 d, a 6-yr baseline, and a single-epoch imaging depth of up to g ∼ 24.5. Using spectral energy distribution (SED) fitting, we find 26 out of total 706 variable galaxies are consistent with dwarf galaxies with a reliable stellar mass estimate ($M_{\ast }\lt 10^{9.5}\, {\rm M}_\odot$; median photometric redshift of 0.9). We were able to constrain rapid characteristic variability time-scales (∼ weeks) using the DES light curves in 15 dwarf AGN candidates (a subset of our variable AGN candidates) at a median photometric redshift of 0.4. This rapid variability is consistent with their low black hole (BH) masses. We confirm the low-mass AGN nature of one source with a high S/N optical spectrum. We publish our catalogue, optical light curves, and supplementary data, such as X-ray properties and optical spectra, when available. We measure a variable AGN fraction versus stellar mass and compare to results from a forward model. This work demonstrates the feasibility of optical variability to identify AGNs with lower BH masses in deep fields, which may be more ‘pristine’ analogues of supermassive BH seeds. 
    more » « less