Observing Cool Dust Around Active Galactic Nuclei Using the Sofia Telescope
Dust surrounding the supermassive black holes (SMBH) in active galactic nuclei (AGN) intercepts high-energy radiation caused by material rapidly encircling the black hole. The dust re-radiates at low-energy mid-infrared (MIR) wavelengths, which are highly attenuated by water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. For ground-based telescopes, the atmosphere is completely opaque from 30 microns to the submillimeter regime, making ground-based observations at wavelengths longer than 30 microns impossible. Space-based telescopes can be costly, and are oftentimes very small (< 1 m). As an alternative, NASA built the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft, a 2.5-m telescope carried on board a Boeing 747 airframe. In this dissertation, new photometric observations of 15 AGN are analyzed. They were obtained during Observing Cycles 2 and 4 on the SOFIA telescope using the 31.5 and 37.1 micron filters on the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). NGC 1068 was observed in the 19.7, 31.5, and 37.1 micron filters using FORCAST, as well as the 53 micron filter on the HAWC+ instrument.
Observed differences in AGN properties are largely explained by a unified model in which dust fills a toroidal region surrounding the SMBH, blocking direct view of the center in some lines of sight. Observations show that this dust lies in the central 1 - 10 pc from the black hole. Subarcsecond-resolution photometric and spectroscopic data between 1 - 20 microns have been used to compute the nuclear spectral energy distributions (SEDs) of the torus for most objects in this sample. Although these previous studies have effectively described torus model parameters, the lack of high spatial resolution observations at longer wavelengths leaves the SED largely unconstrained. Without 31.5 micron data, the model tends to overestimate the SED output and wavelength of peak emission, which is tentatively found between 30 - 40 microns. Including the 31.5 micron nuclear flux in the SED 1) reduces the number of clumpy torus models compatible with the data, and 2) modifies the model output for the outer radial extent of the torus.
These observations of the central ~ 0.1 - 1 kpc (~ 3 - 4 arseconds) of the AGN sample are the highest resolution images available in the 30 - 40 micron wavelength range. However, for AGN at distances on the order of tens of Mpc, SOFIA cannot resolve the parsec-scale torus structure, and contamination from diffuse IR emission and star formation (SF) can contaminate nuclear observations. This dissertation focuses on isolating torus emission from diffuse extended emission in order to 1) add 30 - 40 micron photometric data to the IR SED of the torus and its model parameters, and 2) identify the origin of diffuse extended emission. Extended emission within the FWHM of SOFIA that is not associated with SF ostensibly originates in the narrow line region.