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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: August 2009

Reverberation mapping of active galactic nuclei

Summary

Reverberation mapping is a proven technique that is used to measure the size of the broad emission-line region and central black hole mass in active galactic nuclei. More ambitious reverberation mapping programs that are well within the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope could allow us to determine the nature and flow of line-emitting gas in active nuclei and to assess accurately the systematic uncertainties in reverberation-based black hole mass measurements.

Introduction: The inner structure of AGNs

There is now general consensus that the long-standing paradigm for active galactic nuclei (AGNs) is basically correct, i.e., that AGNs are fundamentally powered by gravitational accretion onto supermassive collapsed objects. Details of the inner structure of AGNs, however, remain sketchy, although both emission lines and absorption lines reveal the presence of large-scale gas flows on scales of hundreds to thousands of gravitational radii. The accretion disk produces a time-variable high-energy continuum that ionizes and heats this nuclear gas, and the broad emission-line fluxes respond to the changes in the illuminating flux from the continuum source. The geometry and kinematics of the broad-line region (BLR), and fundamentally, its role in the accretion process, are not understood. Immediate prospects for understanding this key element of AGN structure do not seem especially promising with the realization that the angular size of the nuclear regions projects to only microarcsecond scales even in the case of the nearest AGNs.

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