Low-ionization nuclear emission-line regions (LINERs), which exist in a large fraction of galaxies, may be the least luminous manifestation of quasar activity. As such, they may make possible the study of the AGN phenomenon in the nearest galaxies. The nature of LINERs has, however, remained controversial because an AGN-like nonstellar continuum source has not been directly observed in them. We report the detection of bright (≳2 × 10-16 ergs s-1 cm-2 Å-1), unresolved (FWHM ≲ 0″.1) point sources of UV (∼2300 Å) emission in the nuclei of nine nearby galaxies. The galaxies were imaged using the Faint Object Camera on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and seven of them are from a complete sample of 110 nearby galaxies that was observed with HST. Ground-based optical spectroscopy reveals that five of the nuclei are LINERs, three are starburst nuclei, and one is a Seyfert nucleus. The observed UV flux in each of the five LINERs implies an ionizing flux that is sufficient to account to the observed emission lines through photoionization. The detection of a strong UV continuum in the LINERs argues against shock excitation as the source of the observed emission lines, and supports the idea that photoionization excites the lines in at least some objects of this class. We have analyzed ground-based spectra for most of the northern-hemisphere galaxies in the HST sample and find that 26 of them are LINERs, among which only the above five LINERs have a detected nuclear UV source. There are no obvious differences in the optical line intensity ratios between the UV-bright and UV-dark LINERs. If all LINERs are photoionized, then the continuum source is unobscured along our line of sight in 5/26 ≈ 20% of LINERs. Alternatively, it can be argued that spectrally similar LINERs are produced by various excitation mechanisms, and that photoionization is responsible in only ∼20% of the cases. The high angular resolution allows us to set upper limits, typically several parsecs, on the physical size of the compact star cluster or AGN-type continuum source that is emitting the UV light in these objects.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science