EDP Sciences
Free access
Volume 470, Number 2, August I 2007
Page(s) 557 - 570
Section Extragalactic astronomy
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361:20077732

A&A 470, 557-570 (2007)
DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361:20077732

Elusive AGN in the XMM-Newton bright serendipitous survey

A. Caccianiga1, P. Severgnini1, R. Della Ceca1, T. Maccacaro1, F. J. Carrera2, and M. J. Page3

1  INAF - Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, via Brera 28, 20121 Milan, Italy
    e-mail: [alessandro.caccianiga;paola.severgnini;roberto.dellaceca;tommaso.maccacaro]@brera.inaf.it
2  Instituto de Física de Cantabria (CSIC-UC), Avenida de los Castros, 39005 Santander, Spain
    e-mail: carreraf@ifca.unican.es
3  Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Holmbury St. Mary, Dorking RH5 6NT, Surrey, UK
    e-mail: mjp@mssl.ucl.ac.uk

(Received 27 April 2007 / Accepted 11 May 2007)

Context.Optical follow-up of X-ray selected sources finds a significant fraction of "optically dull" sources characterized by optical spectra without obvious signature of AGN activity. In many cases, however, the presence of an AGN is inferred from other diagnostics (e.g. the X-ray properties). Understanding and accounting for this "elusiveness" is mandatory for a reliable study of the AGN physical and statistical properties.
Aims.We investigate here the nature of all the sources (35 in total) in the XMM-Newton bright serendipitous survey (which is 86% optically identified) showing an optical spectrum dominated by the light from the host galaxy with no evidence (or little evidence) for the presence of an AGN.
Methods.We use the X-ray spectral analysis to assess the presence of an AGN in these sources and to characterize its properties.
Results.We detect AGN activity in 33 out of 35 sources. The remaining 2 sources are the ones with the lowest X-ray luminosity in the sample ( $L_{[2-10~{\rm keV}]}$ < 1041 erg s-1) and their X-ray emission could be produced within the host galaxy. We find that the "recognition problem" for AGN is very critical in the low-luminosity regime (at least 60% of the AGN with $L_{[2-10~{\rm keV}]}$ < 1043 erg s-1 are elusive) becoming negligible for high X-ray luminosities (~1.5% of elusive AGN with $L_{[2-10~{\rm keV}]}$ > 1044 erg s-1). This problem affects mostly absorbed AGN (~40% of type 2 AGN in the survey are elusive) but also a significant fraction of unabsorbed AGN (8%).
Conclusions.We find that the simplest explanations of why these 33 (or most of them) AGNs are elusive are two: at low X-ray luminosities (<1043 erg s-1) the most important reason is the intrinsically low AGN/galaxy contrast (optical dilution) while at high luminosities (>1044 erg s-1) it is due to the optical absorption (in the Compton-thin regime, i.e. $N_{\rm H}$ < 1024 cm-2). Alternative hypotheses, like the presence of Compton-thick sources, BL Lac objects or "non-standard" AGN (e.g. with $\alpha_{\rm OX}<1$ or with weak/absorbed Narrow Line Region) are not supported by the data although we cannot exclude the presence in the sample of a few sources of these types.

Key words: galaxies: active -- galaxies: nuclei -- X-ray: galaxies -- surveys

© ESO 2007