Author(s): Scott Barrows2, Julia M. Comerford2, Jenny E. Greene1
Institution(s): 1. Princeton University, 2. University of Colorado Boulder
Galaxy mergers are effective mechanisms for triggering accretion onto supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and thereby powering active galactic nuclei (AGN). In the merger scenario, when the SMBH from only one galaxy is accreting we observe a spatially offset AGN, and when the SMBHs from both galaxies are accreting we observe a dual AGN. Understanding the merger conditions that lead to the formation of offset AGN versus dual AGN is fundamental to informing models of hierarchical SMBH growth and the physics leading to the accretion of matter onto SMBHs. However, while the role of galaxy mergers for AGN triggering has been well-studied, the efficiency with which these events trigger offset AGN versus dual AGN is currently unclear. One reason for this gap in knowledge can be attributed to the observational difficulties in distinguishing between offset and dual AGN since doing so requires high spatial resolution, especially in the small separation regime where merger-driven AGN triggering is most likely to occur. To overcome this hurdle, we have utilized the spatial resolution of the Chandra X-ray Observatory to develop a unique sample of AGN hosted by late-stage galaxy mergers. Moreover, we have recently acquired Hubble Space Telescope imaging for a subset of these systems to examine the role that their merger morphologies play in SMBH growth and the formation of offset and dual AGN. We find that offset AGN are predominately found in minor mergers, whereas dual AGN are usually hosted by major mergers and galaxies with large morphological asymmetries. Furthermore, in both offset and dual AGN, the rate of SMBH growth increases toward more major mergers and larger morphological asymmetries. These results are in agreement with numerical simulations predicting that merger morphology is a relevant parameter governing SMBH merger-driven growth, and these results are the first to observationally confirm these trends at small pair separations.