Variability-based active galactic nucleus selection using image subtraction in the SDSS and LSST era

Yumi Choi, Robert R. Gibson, Andrew C. Becker, Željko Ivezić, Andrew J. Connolly, Chelsea L. Macleod, John J. Ruan, Scott F. Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


With upcoming all-sky surveys such as LSST poised to generate a deep digital movie of the optical sky, variability-based active galactic nucleus (AGN) selection will enable the construction of highly complete catalogs with minimum contamination. In this study, we generate g-band difference images and construct light curves (LCs) for QSO/AGN candidates listed in Sloan Digital Sky Survey Stripe 82 public catalogs compiled from different methods, including spectroscopy, optical colors, variability, and X-ray detection. Image differencing excels at identifying variable sources embedded in complex or blended emission regions such as Type II AGNs and other low-luminosity AGNs that may be omitted from traditional photometric or spectroscopic catalogs. To separate QSOs/AGNs from other sources using our difference image LCs, we explore several LC statistics and parameterize optical variability by the characteristic damping timescale (τ) and variability amplitude. By virtue of distinguishable variability parameters of AGNs, we are able to select them with high completeness of 93.4% and efficiency (i.e., purity) of 71.3%. Based on optical variability, we also select highly variable blazar candidates, whose infrared colors are consistent with known blazars. One-third of them are also radio detected. With the X-ray selected AGN candidates, we probe the optical variability of X-ray detected optically extended sources using their difference image LCs for the first time. A combination of optical variability and X-ray detection enables us to select various types of host-dominated AGNs. Contrary to the AGN unification model prediction, two Type II AGN candidates (out of six) show detectable variability on long-term timescales like typical Type I AGNs. This study will provide a baseline for future optical variability studies of extended sources.

Original languageEnglish
Article number37
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2014


  • galaxies: active
  • galaxies: nuclei
  • quasars: general
  • X-rays: general


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