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Impact of an AGN featureless continuum on estimation of stellar population properties

L. S. M. Cardoso, J. M. Gomes, P. Papaderos

The effect of the featureless power-law (PL) continuum of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) on the estimation of physical properties of galaxies with optical population spectral synthesis (PSS) remains largely unknown. With the goal of a quantitative examination of this issue, we fit synthetic galaxy spectra representing a wide range of galaxy star formation histories (SFHs) and including distinct PL contributions of the form Fν∝ν with the PSS code STARLIGHT to study to which extent various inferred quantities (e.g. stellar mass, mean age, and mean metallicity) match the input. The synthetic spectral energy distributions (SEDs) computed with our evolutionary spectral synthesis code include an AGN PL component with 0.5≤α≤2 and a fractional contribution 0.2≤xAGN≤0.8 to the monochromatic flux at 4020 Å. At the empirical AGN detection threshold xAGN≃0.26 that we previously inferred in a pilot study on this subject, our results show that the neglect of a PL component in spectral fitting can lead to an overestimation by ~2 dex in stellar mass and by up to ~1 and ~4 dex in the light- and mass-weighted mean stellar age, respectively, whereas the light- and mass-weighted mean stellar metallicity are underestimated by up to ~0.3 and ~0.6 dex, respectively. These biases, which become more severe with increasing xAGN, are essentially independent of the adopted SFH and show a complex behaviour with evolutionary time and α. Other fitting set-ups including either a single PL or multiple PLs in the base reveal, on average, much lower unsystematic uncertainties of the order of those typically found when fitting purely stellar SEDs with stellar templates, however, reaching locally up to ~1, 3 and 0.4 dex in mass, age and metallicity, respectively. Our results underscore the importance of an accurate modelling of the AGN spectral contribution in PSS fits as a minimum requirement for the recovery of the physical and evolutionary properties of stellar populations in active galaxies. In particular, this study draws attention to the fact that the neglect of a PL in spectral modelling of these systems may lead to substantial overestimates in stellar mass and age, thereby leading to potentially significant biases in our understanding of the co-evolution of AGN with their galaxy hosts.

galaxies: active; galaxies: Seyfert; galaxies: stellar content; galaxies: evolution; Astrophysics - Astrophysics of Galaxies

Astronomy & Astrophysics
Volume 604, Article Number A99, Number of pages 19
2017 August

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Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa Universidade do Porto Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia da Universidade de Coimbra
Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia COMPETE 2020 PORTUGAL 2020 União Europeia