The suppression of star formation by powerful active galactic nuclei

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The old, red stars that constitute the bulges of galaxies, and the massive black holes at their centres, are the relics of a period in cosmic history when galaxies formed stars at remarkable rates and active galactic nuclei (AGN) shone brightly as a result of accretion onto black holes. It is widely suspected, but unproved, that the tight correlation between the mass of the black hole and the mass of the stellar bulge1 results from the AGN quenching the surrounding star formation as it approaches its peak luminosity2,3,4. X-rays trace emission from AGN unambiguously5, whereas powerful star-forming galaxies are usually dust-obscured and are brightest at infrared and submillimetre wavelengths6. Here we report submillimetre and X-ray observations that show that rapid star formation was common in the host galaxies of AGN when the Universe was 2–6 billion years old, but that the most vigorous star formation is not observed around black holes above an X-ray luminosity of 1044 ergs per second. This suppression of star formation in the host galaxy of a powerful AGN is a key prediction of models in which the AGN drives an outflow7,8,9, expelling the interstellar medium of its host and transforming the galaxy’s properties in a brief period of cosmic time.

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Figure 1: Redshifts ( z ) and 2–8 keV X-ray luminosities ( L X ) of AGN in the CDF-N.
Figure 2: Average star formation rates, 〈SFR〉, derived from averaged far-infrared luminosities of 1 <  z  < 3 AGN, as a function of LX.


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Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia and with important participation from NASA. SPIRE has been developed by a consortium of institutes led by Cardiff University (UK) and which includes: University of Lethbridge (Canada); NAOC (China); CEA, LAM (France); IFSI, University of Padua (Italy); IAC (Spain); Stockholm Observatory (Sweden); Imperial College London, RAL, UCL-MSSL, UKATC, University of Sussex (UK); and Caltech, JPL, NHSC, University of Colorado (USA). This development has been supported by national funding agencies: CSA (Canada); NAOC (China); CEA, CNES, CNRS (France); ASI (Italy); MCINN (Spain); SNSB (Sweden); STFC, UKSA (UK); and NASA (USA).

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This Letter represents the combined work of the HerMES collaboration, the SPIRE Instrument Team’s extragalactic survey. M.J.P. planned the study, and wrote the draft version of the paper. M.S. fitted models to the spectral energy distributions of the sources and J.D.V. performed the stacking analysis. All other co-authors contributed extensively and equally by their varied contributions to the SPIRE instrument, the Herschel mission, analysis of SPIRE and HerMES data, planning of HerMES observations and scientific support of HerMES, and by commenting on this manuscript as part of an internal review process.

Correspondence to M. J. Page.

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Page, M., Symeonidis, M., Vieira, J. et al. The suppression of star formation by powerful active galactic nuclei. Nature 485, 213–216 (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11096

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