Spectroscopic monitoring of long-term AGN transients: threading the micro-needle
Bruce, Alastair Graham
All active galactic nuclei (AGN) are known to vary in the rest-frame UV/optical. Typical variations are on the order of 30% or so and are stochastic in nature. Therefore, the discovery of a number of extreme AGN transients, which are smoothly evolving on year-long timescales and by a factor of four or more, is surprising and necessitates further analysis. Are these objects simply at the extreme end of the variability distribution seen in normal quasars or is there another mechanism which can explain their atypical behaviour? The primary focus for this work is on the possibility that a number of these extreme AGN transients are actually rare, high-amplitude microlensing events, caused by intervening stellar mass object(s). Not only do the microlensing models provide an explanation for the observed variability but they also allow constraints to be placed on the morphology of the emitting regions of the AGN, namely the accretion disc and broad line region (BLR). These transients have been monitored both photometrically and spectroscopically, since their discovery. The majority of spectroscopic observations have been conducted using the William Herschel Telescope. At time of writing (Sept. 2017), there are now 64 confirmed AGN and 235 individual spectra. The spectral reduction pipeline, calibration and initial measurements are described in Chapter 2. This chapter also details the microlensing models and procedures used in interpreting both the light curve information and spectral measurements. This includes: a comprehensive treatment of the simple point-source/point-lens model; quantitative point-lens models which allow for the use of extended sources; and also an initial exploration into more complex lensing morphologies involving multiple lensing objects and/or an external shear. Chapter 3 details the results of the spectroscopic monitoring campaign for the entire transient sample. A general classification scheme is developed which allows for a comparison of the evolutionary trends seen in objects exhibiting similar behaviour. A subset of transient AGN, the most extreme objects in the sample, is also discussed in detail, with a particular focus on the evolution of the continuum, line fluxes and equivalent widths. Chapter 4 details the results of the analysis of four key targets, selected for their suitability in addressing the microlensing hypothesis. For two targets the point-source point-lens model performs very well. Lens parameters for these objects are presented and in one particular case, the data is sufficient to allow constraints to be placed on the size of various components comprising the broad line region. Chapter 5 expands the microlensing analysis to include the entire AGN transient sample. Approximately 10% of objects are well matched by a simple point-source, point-lens microlensing model. In other objects, evidence is seen which requires a more complex lensing scenario to adequately explain. In one class of objects there is also evidence that the accretion disc is being resolved by the lens. Chapter 6 revisits a notable are seen in an AGN which lies behind M31. The analysis reaffirms that this event is well described by a simple microlensing model and provides an independent estimate that the most probable location for the lens is within M31 itself.