Limitations on the recovery of the true AGN variability parameters using damped random walk modeling
Warsaw University Observatory, Al. Ujazdowskie 4, 00-478 Warszawa, Poland
Received: 13 October 2016
Accepted: 23 November 2016
Context. The damped random walk (DRW) stochastic process is nowadays frequently used to model aperiodic light curves of active galactic nuclei (AGNs). A number of correlations between the DRW model parameters, the signal decorrelation timescale and amplitude, and the physical AGN parameters, such as the black hole mass or luminosity, have been reported.
Aims. We are interested in whether or not it is plausible to correctly measure the DRW parameters from a typical ground-based survey, and, in particular, in how accurate the recovered DRW parameters are compared to the input ones.
Methods. By means of Monte Carlo simulations of AGN light curves, we studied the impact of the light curve length, the source magnitude (the photometric properties of a survey), cadence, and additional light (e.g., from a host galaxy) on the DRW model parameters.
Results. The most significant finding is that currently existing surveys are going to return unconstrained DRW decorrelation timescales, because typical rest-frame data do not probe long enough timescales or the white noise part of the power spectral density for DRW. The experiment length must be at least ten times longer than the true DRW decorrelation timescale, being presumably in the vicinity of one year, thus meaning the necessity for AGN light curves measuring a minimum of 10 years (rest-frame). The DRW timescales for sufficiently long light curves are typically weakly biased, and the exact bias depends on the fitting method and used priors. The DRW amplitude is mostly affected by the photometric noise (the source magnitude or the signal-to-noise ratio), cadence, and the AGN host light.
Conclusions. Because the DRW parameters appear to be incorrectly determined from typically existing data, the reported correlations of the DRW variability and physical AGN parameters from other works seem unlikely to be correct. In particular, the anti-correlation of the DRW decorrelation timescale with redshift is a manifestation of the survey length being too short. Application of DRW to modeling typical AGN optical light curves is questioned.
Key words: accretion, accretion disks / quasars: general / galaxies: active / methods: data analysis
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