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Published October 1, 2017 | Published + Accepted Version
Journal Article Open

Understanding extreme quasar optical variability with CRTS: I. Major AGN flares


There is a large degree of variety in the optical variability of quasars and it is unclear whether this is all attributable to a single (set of) physical mechanism(s). We present the results of a systematic search for major flares in active galactic nucleus (AGN) in the Catalina Real-time Transient Survey as part of a broader study into extreme quasar variability. Such flares are defined in a quantitative manner as being atop of the normal, stochastic variability of quasars. We have identified 51 events from over 900 000 known quasars and high-probability quasar candidates, typically lasting 900 d and with a median peak amplitude of Δm = 1.25 mag. Characterizing the flare profile with a Weibull distribution, we find that nine of the sources are well described by a single-point single-lens model. This supports the proposal by Lawrence et al. that microlensing is a plausible physical mechanism for extreme variability. However, we attribute the majority of our events to explosive stellar-related activity in the accretion disc: superluminous supernovae, tidal disruption events and mergers of stellar mass black holes.

Additional Information

© 2017 The Authors. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society. Accepted 2017 June 8. Received 2017 June 6; in original form 2017 March 8. Published: 12 June 2017. We thank Hans Meusinger for providing the data for Sharov 21 in the electronic form, Chelsea MacLeod for the predicted cumulative magnitude distributions, Alastair Bruce for clarifying the L16 lens fits, and Barry McKernan for discussions on accretion disc physics. We also thank the anonymous referee for useful comments. This work was supported in part by the NSF grants AST-1413600 and AST-1518308. The work of DS was carried out at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. This work made use of the Million Quasars Catalogue. Funding for SDSS-III has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Participating Institutions, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. The SDSS-III web site is http://www.sdss3.org/. SDSS-III is managed by the Astrophysical Research Consortium for the Participating Institutions of the SDSS-III Collaboration including the University of Arizona, the Brazilian Participation Group, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Florida, the French Participation Group, the German Participation Group, Harvard University, the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, the Michigan State/Notre Dame/JINA Participation Group, Johns Hopkins University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, New Mexico State University, New York University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Portsmouth, Princeton University, the Spanish Participation Group, University of Tokyo, University of Utah, Vanderbilt University, University of Virginia, University of Washington and Yale University.

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Accepted Version - 1706.03079.pdf


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August 22, 2023
October 18, 2023