X-ray color analysis of the spectra of active galactic nuclei

Hagai Netzer, T. J. Turner, Ian M. George

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The identification and detection of X-ray absorption and emission features depends on the resolution and the signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) of the observation, the understanding of the instrument response, and the Galactic line-of-sight absorption. Since many of the active galactic nucleus (AGN) data sets are limited in their S/N and full modeling of the physical conditions is rather complicated, we suggest a new analysis method based on "X-ray colors." The two sets of X-ray colors, defined for low (ROSAT PSPC) and medium (BBXRT and ASCA SIS) resolution experiments, are used to separate regions of different physical conditions in a two-dimensional color-color plane. They are similar but superior to previous methods using the X-ray "hardness ratio" in being able to reveal more of the physical properties of the source. We illustrate the use of such diagrams by studying a number of AGNs suspected of showing absorption features. A sample of 14 AGNs observed by the ROSAT PSPC is presented which includes several objects with suspected "warm absorbers" along the line-of-sight to the nucleus, several others exhibiting intrinsic continuum variations, and a number of control objects thought to be featureless. Our new observations show, for the first time, the color variation as a function of time for three of the Seyfert 1 sources: NGC 4051, Mrk 335, and Mrk 766. The variations suggest that in two sources we are witnessing real changes in continuum shape, while one (NGC 4051) is consistent with having a warm absorber. Four of the objects observed by BBXRT are reanalyzed using our X-ray colors. Out of these, we discuss in detail the case of NGC 4151 and show that the color-color analysis agrees very well with previous, detailed spectral fitting methods. In particular, we confirm that the observed BBXRT observation of this source is not consistent with the warm absorber explanation and must be interpreted as a combination of a variable hard component and another component. We explain the limitations in measuring low-energy emission features in ASCA SIS observations and present color-color diagrams which can be used as a powerful diagnostic tool in the analysis of data collected by this experiment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106-115
Number of pages10
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Nov 1994


  • Galaxies: active
  • Galaxies: nuclei
  • X-rays: galaxies


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