Hubble Space Telescope images of nearby luminous quasars. II. Results for eight quasars and tests of the detection sensitivity

John N. Bahcall, Sofia Kirhakos, Donald P. Schneider

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Observations with the Wide-Field Camera of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are presented for eight intrinsically luminous quasars with redshifts between 0.16 and 0.29. These observations, when combined with a similar HST study of the quasar PKS 2349-014, show that luminous nearby quasars exist in a variety of environments. Seven companion galaxies brighter than Mv = -16.5 (H0 = 100 km s-1 Mpc-1, Ω0 = 1.0) lie within a projected distance of 25 kpc of the quasars; three of the companions are located closer than 3″ (6 kpc projected distance) from the quasars, well within the volume that would be enclosed by a typical L* host galaxy. The observed association of quasars and companion galaxies is statistically significant and may be an important element in the luminous-quasar phenomenon. Apparent host galaxies are detected for three of the quasars: PG 1116 + 215, 3C 273, and PG 1444 + 407; the hosts have an average absolute magnitude of about 0.6 mag brighter than L*. The agreement between the previously published major-axis directions in ground-based images and in the present HST images of 3C 273 and PG 1444 + 407 constitutes important evidence supporting the reality of these candidate host galaxies. Upper limits are placed on the visual-band brightnesses of representative galactic hosts for all the quasars. These limits are established by placing galaxy images obtained with HST underneath the quasars and measuring at what faintness level the known galaxies are detected. On average, the HST spirals would have been detected if they were as faint as 1 mag below L*, and the early-type galaxies could have been detected down to a brightness level of about L*, where L* is the Schechter characteristic luminosity of field galaxies. Smooth, a featureless galaxy models (exponential disks or de Vaucouleurs profiles) are fitted to the residual light after a best-fitting point source is subtracted from the quasar images. The results show that smooth spiral galaxies brighter than, on average, about L*, would have been detected. These upper limits, or possible detections, are consistent with, for example, the eight luminous quasars studied in this paper, occurring in host galaxies that have a Shechter luminosity function with a lower cutoff of in the range 0.01-0.1L*. Tests are performed to determine if our failure to detect, in some cases, luminous host galaxies could be an artifact caused by our analysis procedures. These tests include comparing the measured point-spread function (PSF) for our HST observations with the PSFs used in previous ground-based studies of host galaxies, measuring the fluctuations in the sky signals that were subtracted from the quasar images, evaluating empirically the effects of using different stellar PSFs in the analysis, carrying out the subtraction of the stellar (nuclear) source in different ways, creating and analyzing artificial active galactic nuclei (AGNs) with known surface brightnesses, and fitting the observed quasar light to an analytic model that includes a host galaxy. Our analysis procedures successfully pass all these tests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)486-500
Number of pages15
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 10 1995

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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