Absorption in X-ray spectra of high-redshift quasars

Martin Elvis, Fabrizio Fiore, Belinda Wilkes, Jonathan Mcdowell, Jill Bechtold

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96 Scopus citations


We present evidence that X-ray absorption is common in high-redshift quasars. We have studied six high-redshift (z ∼ 3) quasars with the ROSAT PSPC of which four are in directions of low Galactic NH. Three out of these four show excess absorption, while only three in ∼ 50 z ≲ 0.4 quasars do, indicating that such absorption must be common, but not ubiquitous, at high redshifts, and that the absorbers must lie at z > 0.4. The six quasars were: S5 0014+81, Q0420-388, PKS 0438-436, S4 0636+680. PKS 2000-330, PKS 2126-158, which have redshifts between 2.85 and 3.78. PKS 0438-436 and PKS 2126-158 show evidence for absorption above the local Galactic value at better than 99.999% confidence level. If the absorber is at the redshift of the quasar, then values of NH = [0.86(+0.49, -0.28)] × 1022 atoms cm-2 for PKS 0438-436, and NH = [1.45(+1.20, -0.64)] × 1022 atoms cm-2 for PKS 2126-158, are implied, assuming solar abundances. The spectrum of S4 0636+680 also suggests the presence of a similarly large absorption column density at the 98% confidence level. This absorption reverses the trend for the most luminous active galactic nuclei (AGN) to have the least X-ray absorption, so a new mechanism is likely to be responsible. Intervening absorption due to damped Lyα systems is a plausible cause. We also suggest, as an intrinsic model, that intracluster material, e.g., a cooling flow, around the quasar could account for both the X-ray spectrum and other properties of these quasars. All the quasars are radio-loud and three are gigahertz peaked (two of the three showing absorption). No excess absorption above the Galactic value is seen toward Q0420-388. This quasar has two damped Lyα systems at z = 3.08. The limit on the X-ray column density implies a low ionization fraction, N(H I)/N(H) ≳ 4 × 10-3 (3 σ), for solar abundances, for these systems, and can set a weak limit on the size of the absorber. In the emitted frame these PSPC spectra cover the band ∼0.5-10 keV, which has been well observed for low-redshift quasars and AGN. Comparison of high and low-redshift spectra in this emitted band shows no change of mean spectral index greater than ΔαE > 0.3 (99% confidence) with either redshift or luminosity, for radio-loud quasars.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)60-72
Number of pages13
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 10 1994
Externally publishedYes


  • Quasars: absorption lines
  • X-rays: galaxies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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