Strong Correlation Between Circumnuclear Dust and Black Hole Accretion in Early-Type Galaxies

Ramiro D. Simões Lopes, Thaisa Storchi-Bergmann, Maria de Fatima de O. Saraiva, and Paul Martini, 2007, ApJ, 655, 718

We present a detailed investigation of the incidence of circumnuclear dust structure in a large, well-matched sample of early-type galaxies with and without active galactic nuclei (AGNs). All 34 early-type AGN hosts in our sample have circumnuclear dust, while dust is only observed in 26% (9) of a pair-matched sample of 34 early-type, inactive galaxies. This result demonstrates a strong correlation between the presence of circumnuclear dust and accretion onto the central, supermassive black hole in elliptical and lenticular galaxies. This correlation is not present at later Hubble types, where a sample of 31 active and 31 inactive galaxies all contain circumnuclear dust. These archival, Hubble Space Telescope observations reveal a wide range of mostly chaotic dust morphologies. Current estimates suggest the dust settling or destruction time is on order of 108 yr, and therefore the presence of dust in 50% of early-type galaxies requires frequent replenishment and similarly frequent fueling of their central supermassive black holes. The observed dust could be internally produced (via stellar winds) or externally accreted, although there are observational challenges for both of these scenarios. Our analysis also reveals that approximately one-third of the early-type galaxies without circumnuclear dust have nuclear stellar disks. These nuclear stellar disks may provide a preferred kinematic axis to externally accreted material, and this material may in turn form new stars in these disks. The observed incidence of nuclear stellar disks and circumnuclear dust suggests that episodic replenishment of nuclear stellar disks occurs and is approximately concurrent with the fueling of the central AGN.

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