Dwarf AGNs from Variability for the Origins of Seeds (DAVOS): Intermediate-mass black hole demographics from optical synoptic surveys

Colin J. Burke, Yue Shen, Xin Liu, Priyamvada Natarajan, Neven Caplar, Jillian M. Bellovary, Z. Franklin Wang

Submitted on 8 July 2022


We present a phenomenological forward Monte Carlo model for forecasting the population of active galactic nuclei (AGNs) in dwarf galaxies observable via their optical variability. Our model accounts for expected changes in the spectral energy distribution of AGNs in the intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) mass range and uses observational constraints on optical variability as a function of black hole (BH) mass to generate mock light curves. Adopting several different models for the BH occupation function, including one for off-nuclear IMBHs, we quantify differences in the predicted local AGN mass and luminosity functions in dwarf galaxies. As a result, we are able to model the variable fraction of AGNs as a function of physical host properties, such as host galaxy stellar mass, in the presence of complex selection effects. We find that our adopted occupation fractions for the "heavy" and "light" initial BH seeding scenarios can be distinguished with variability data at the 23σ level for galaxy host stellar masses below 108M with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. We demonstrate the prevalence of a selection bias whereby recovered IMBH masses fall, on average, above the predicted value from the local host galaxy - BH mass scaling relation with the strength of the bias dependent on the survey sensitivity. The methodology developed in this work can be used more broadly to forecast and correct for selection effects for AGN demographic studies in synoptic surveys. Finally, we show that a targeted hourly cadence program over a few nights with the Rubin Observatory can provide strong constraints on IMBH masses given their expected rapid variability timescales.


Comment: 25 pages, 16 figures, 5 appendices; submitted to MNRAS

Subjects: Astrophysics - Astrophysics of Galaxies; Astrophysics - High Energy Astrophysical Phenomena