A common type of active galactic nuclei (AGN) could be used as an accurate "standard candle" for measuring cosmic distances – according to astronomers in Denmark and Australia. AGNs are some of the brightest objects in the visible universe and the technique could allow astronomers to determine much larger distances than is possible with current techniques, the scientists say.

Standard candles are distant objects with known brightness that give astronomers a very accurate measure of cosmic distances – the dimmer the candle appears to us, the farther away it must be. Studying these candles is crucial to our understanding of the age and energy density of the universe. Indeed, the use of supernovae and Cepheids as standard candles turned our understanding of the cosmos on its head through the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe and the introduction of dark energy.

'Reverberation mapping'

However, reliable measurements of distances greater than redshift of about 1.7 are beyond the current capabilities of known standard candles. Now, Darach Watson and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Queensland have shown that a tight relationship between the luminosity of an AGN and the radius of its "broad-line region" can be used to measure cosmic distances. The radius is found using "reverberation mapping", an established technique for studying the inner structure of AGNs, to gauge their mass. However, until this latest work, the method had not been considered in the search for new standard candles.

According to Copenhagen astronomer Kelly Denney, the approach works using type-1 AGNs – those with broad-line emissions in the visible spectrum. These objects have a dense area of gas and dust surrounding the black hole called the broad-line region. The region is so-called because light emitted by the gas has much broader line widths than light from most other astronomical sources.

Heart of the matter

Much closer to the black hole is the accretion disc where matter falling into the black hole collects, causing a great deal of light to be produced. As this light travels outwards, it ionizes gas in the broad-line region, causing it to emit light with the distinct broad line widths because the gas is moving at many thousands of kilometres per second due to the gravity of the black hole, and the Doppler shifts associated with this motion causes the broadening. However, the amount of light produced in the accretion disc is not constant. By carefully comparing the time at which the light is emitted from the accretion disc and the time at which the ionized light is re-emitted from the broad-line region, astronomers can measure a time lag between the light arriving from the two sources. This delay is proportional to the radius of the broad-line region divided by the speed of light. This radius correlates tightly with the luminosity of the AGN. The luminosity in turn is used to calculate the distance because they are inversely related.

The technique, however, is difficult and it wasn't until 2009 that Denney – then working with Bradley Peterson's group at Ohio State University – vastly improved the accuracy of the data from the radius-luminosity relationship such that it would allow a precise distance to be calculated. When Darach Watson came across the result, he wondered why this was not being used as a distance indicator already. "The simple answer was 'Huh, well, I don't know!' Everyone in the AGN community typically wants to know why no-one has thought of this before!" said Denney.

Candle in the wind

To confirm the technique's ability to give the distance of an AGN, Watson and colleagues looked at a sample of 38 AGNs at known distances. They found that reverberation mapping gave a reasonable estimate of the distance to the AGNs. Kenney quipped, "This almost makes the notion of AGNs as standard candles an oxymoron, since it's their variability that makes the method work!"

Currently, the AGN technique is not as reliable as those based on Cepheids or supernovae. However, unlike a supernova – which lasts for a relatively short time – an AGN can be observed over long periods, reducing observational uncertainties. Also, AGNs exist at all redshifts, so astronomers can pick and choose which ones to study.

In the coming months, the researchers aim to reduce the scatter in their current data and work on higher redshift reverberation mapping experiments. "One drawback of the method is that, due to time-dilation effects, the monitoring time required to measure time delays can become very long, especially for high-redshift sources. We are investigating ways to reduce this time, such as working in the UV, where the time delays are shorter." says Denney.

A preprint of a paper about the work is available on arXiv.