Mid-infrared selection of active galaxies

Daniel Stern, Peter Eisenhardt, Varoujan Gorjian, Christopher S. Kochanek, Nelson Caldwell, Daniel Eisenstein, Mark Brodwin, Michael J.I. Brown, Richard Cool, Arjun Dey, Paul Green, Buell T. Jannuzi, Stephen S. Murray, Michael A. Pahre, S. P. Willner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

778 Scopus citations


Mid-infrared photometry provides a robust technique for identifying active galaxies. While the ultraviolet to mid-infrared (λ ≲ 5 μm) continuum of stellar populations is dominated by the composite blackbody curve and peaks at approximately 1.6 μm, the ultraviolet to mid-infrared continuum of active galactic nuclei (AGNs) is dominated by a power law. Consequently, with a sufficient wavelength baseline, one can easily distinguish AGNs from stellar populations. Mirroring the tendency of AGNs to be bluer than galaxies in the ultraviolet, where galaxies (and stars) sample the blue, rising portion of stellar spectra, AGNs tend to be redder than galaxies in the mid-infrared, where galaxies sample the red, falling portion of the stellar spectra. We report on Spitzer Space Telescope mid-infrared colors, derived from the IRAC Shallow Survey, of nearly 10,000 spectroscopically identified sources from the AGN and Galaxy Evolution Survey. On the basis of this spectroscopic sample, we find that simple mid-infrared color criteria provide remarkably robust separation of active galaxies from normal galaxies and Galactic stars, with over 80% completeness and less than 20% contamination. Considering only broad-lined AGNs, these mid-infrared color criteria identify over 90% of spectroscopically identified quasars and Seyfert 1 galaxies. Applying these color criteria to the full imaging data set, we discuss the implied surface density of AGNs and find evidence for a large population of optically obscured active galaxies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-168
Number of pages6
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 I
StatePublished - Sep 20 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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