Revealing the X-ray variability of AGN with principal component analysis Article uri icon


  • Parker, M. L., Fabian, A. C., Matt, G., Koljonen, K. I. I., Kara, E., Alston, W., Walton, D. J., Marinucci, A., Brenneman, L. and Risaliti, G.


  • We analyse a sample of 26 active galactic nuclei (AGN) with deep XMM-Newton observations, using principal component analysis (PCA) to find model-independent spectra of the different variable components. In total, we identify at least 12 qualitatively different patterns of spectral variability, involving several different mechanisms, including five sources which show evidence of variable relativistic reflection (MCG-6-30-15, NGC 4051, 1H 0707-495, NGC 3516 and Mrk 766) and three which show evidence of varying partial covering neutral absorption (NGC 4395, NGC 1365 and NGC 4151). In over half of the sources studied, the variability is dominated by changes in a power-law continuum, both in terms of changes in flux and power-law index, which could be produced by propagating fluctuations within the corona. Simulations are used to find unique predictions for different physical models, and we then attempt to qualitatively match the results from the simulations to the behaviour observed in the real data. We are able to explain a large proportion of the variability in these sources using simple models of spectral variability, but more complex models may be needed for the remainder. We have begun the process of building up a library of different principal components, so that spectral variability in AGN can quickly be matched to physical processes. We show that PCA can be an extremely powerful tool for distinguishing different patterns of variability in AGN, and that it can be used effectively on the large amounts of high-quality archival data available from the current generation of X-ray telescopes. We will make our PCA code available upon request to the lead author.

publication date

  • 2015