Spitzer's contribution to the AGN population

J. L. Donley, G. H. Rieke, P. G. Pérez-González, G. Barro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

181 Scopus citations


Infrared selection is a potentially powerful way to identify heavily obscured AGNs missed in even the deepest X-ray surveys. Using a 24 μm-selected sample in GOODS-S, we test the reliability and completeness of three infrared AGN selection methods: (1) IRAC color-color selection, (2) IRAC power-law selection, and (3) IR-excess selection; we also evaluate a number of IR-excess approaches. We find that the vast majority of non-power-law IRAC color-selected AGN candidates in GOODS-S have colors consistent with those of star-forming galaxies. Contamination by star-forming galaxies is most prevalent at low 24 μm flux densities (∼100 μJy) and high redshifts (z ∼ 2), but the fraction of potential contaminants is still high (∼50%) at 500 μJy, the highest flux density probed reliably by our survey. AGN candidates selected via a simple, physically motivated power-law criterion ("power-law galaxies," or PLGs), however, appear to be reliable. We confirm that the IR-excess methods successfully identify a number of AGNs, but we also find that such samples may be significantly contaminated by star-forming galaxies. Adding only the secure Spitzer-selected PLG, color-selected, IR-excess, and radio/IR-selected AGN candidates to the deepest X-ray-selected AGN samples directly increases the number of known X-ray AGNs (84) by 54%-77%, and implies an increase to the number of 24 μm-detected AGNs of 71%-94%. Finally, we show that the fraction of MIR sources dominated by an AGN decreases with decreasing MIR flux density, but only down to f24 μm = 300 μJy. Below this limit, the AGN fraction levels out, indicating that a nonnegligible fraction (∼10%) of faint 24 μm sources (the majority of which are missed in the X-ray) are powered not by star formation, but by the central engine. The fraction of all AGNs (regardless of their MIR properties) exceeds 15% at all 24 μm flux densities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-132
Number of pages22
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 1 2008


  • Galaxies: active
  • Infrared: galaxies
  • X-rays: galaxies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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