The discovery of the first "changing look" Quasar: New insights into the physics and phenomenology of active galactic nuclei

Stephanie M. Lamassa, Sabrina Cales, Edward C. Moran, Adam D. Myers, Gordon T. Richards, Michael Eracleous, Timothy M. Heckman, Luigi Gallo, C. Megan Urry

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296 Scopus citations


SDSS J015957.64+003310.5 is an X-ray selected, z = 0.31 active galactic nucleus (AGN) from the Stripe 82X survey that transitioned from a Type 1 quasar to a Type 1.9 AGN between 2000 and 2010. This is the most distant AGN, and first quasar, yet observed to have undergone such a dramatic change. We re-observed the source with the double spectrograph on the Palomar 5 m telescope in 2014 July and found that the spectrum is unchanged since 2010. From fitting the optical spectra, we find that the AGN flux dropped by a factor of 6 between 2000 and 2010 while the broad Hα emission faded and broadened. Serendipitous X-ray observations caught the source in both the bright and dim state, showing a similar 2-10 keV flux diminution as the optical while lacking signatures of obscuration. The optical and X-ray changes coincide with g-band magnitude variations over multiple epochs of Stripe 82 observations. We demonstrate that variable absorption, as might be expected from the simplest AGN unification paradigm, does not explain the observed photometric or spectral properties. We interpret the changing state of J0159+0033 to be caused by dimming of the AGN continuum, reducing the supply of ionizing photons available to excite gas in the immediate vicinity around the black hole. J0159+0033 provides insight into the intermittency of black hole growth in quasars, as well as an unprecedented opportunity to study quasar physics (in the bright state) and the host galaxy (in the dim state), which has been impossible to do in a single sources until now.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number144
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 20 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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