EDP Sciences
Free access
Volume 508, Number 2, December III 2009
Page(s) 641 - 644
Section Extragalactic astronomy
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361/200913046
Published online 04 November 2009
A&A 508, 641-644 (2009)
DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/200913046

Research Note

The ultraviolet flare at the center of the elliptical galaxy NGC 4278

A. Cardullo1, E. M. Corsini1, A. Beifiori1, L. M. Buson2, E. Dalla Bontà1, L. Morelli1, A. Pizzella1, and F. Bertola1

1  Dipartimento di Astronomia, Università di Padova, vicolo dell'Osservatorio 2, 35122 Padova, Italy
    e-mail: andrea.cardullo@unipd.it
2  INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, vicolo dell'Osservatorio 5, 35122 Padova, Italy

Received 31 July 2009 / Accepted 25 September 2009

Context. A large fraction of otherwise normal galaxies shows a weak nuclear activity. One of the signatures of the low-luminosity active galactic nuclei (LLAGNs) is ultraviolet variability which was serendipitously discovered in the center of some low-ionization nuclear emission-line region (LINER) galaxies.
Aims. There is a pressing need to acquire better statistics about UV flaring and variability in galaxy nuclei, both in terms of the number and monitoring of targets. The Science Data Archive of the Hubble Space Telescope was queried to find all the elliptical galaxies with UV images obtained in different epochs with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) and possibly with nuclear spectra obtained with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) in the region of the H$\alpha$ emission line. These data were found only for the elliptical radiogalaxy NGC 4278 .
Methods. The UV flux of the nuclear source of NGC 4278 was measured by means of aperture photometry on the WFPC2/F218W images obtained between June 1994 and January 1995. The mass of the central supermassive black hole (SBH) was estimated by measuring the broad components of the emission lines observed in the STIS/G750M spectrum and assuming that the gas is uniformly distributed in a sphere.
Results. The nucleus of NGC 4278 hosts a barely resolved but strongly variable UV source. Its UV luminosity increased by a factor of 1.6 in a period of 6 months. The amplitude and scale time of the UV flare in NGC 4278 are remarkably similar to those of the brightest UV nuclear transients which were found earlier in other LLAGNs. The mass of the SBH was found to be in the range between 7 $\times$ 107 and  2 $\times$ 109 $M_{\odot}$. This is in agreement with previous findings based on different assumptions about the gas distribution and with the predictions based on the galaxy velocity dispersion.
Conclusions. All the LINER nuclei with available multi-epoch UV observations and a detected radio core are characterized by a UV variable source. This supports the idea that the UV variability is a relatively common phenomenon in galaxy centers, perhaps providing the missing link between LINERs and true AGN activity.

Key words: galaxies: active -- galaxies: elliptical and lenticular, cD -- galaxies: individual: NGC 4278 -- galaxies: nuclei -- ultraviolet: galaxies -- black hole physics

© ESO 2009