Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) are some of the most powerful objects in the Universe, sometimes outshining the galaxies that host them. It is now generally accepted that a supermassive black hole is at the heart of these objects. As matter flows into the black hole, it flattens into an accretion disk. This matter becomes heated to high temperatures and is responsible for generating all of the electromagnetic radiation we observe. These objects are so distant that we cannot image them, so we must rely upon spectroscopy to infer the structure and dynamics of the accretion flow. In order to study these objects, we need to collect data from large samples of objects.
I am currently developing a new sample in which the AGN are selected by their X-ray properties. The basis of the sample is the XMM-Newton Slew Survey, in which the data are collected as the X-ray satellite moves from one target to the next. This survey is ideal for developing a sample of relatively nearby AGN which will allow for detailed follow-up in many wavelengths. The first challenge is to identify the AGN and "weed" out other sources such as flaring stars and also gather basic information about the AGN so that further follow-up observations can be obtained at other wavelengths. Over the past several years I have been collecting optical spectra.
We will also mine the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for "free" data as well. In addition to learning about the physics of AGN, students working on this project will learn IRAF, an astronomical software package that is widely used in optical astronomy, as well as spectral analysis. If I am awarded observing time, the student will also be able to gain first-hand experience in gathering astronomical data. Finally, the students will participate in the wider summer research program in the physics department and gain valuable skills that will be useful in their study of all branches of physics.