The effect of nuclear gas distribution on the mass determination of supermassive black holes

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Supermassive black holes reside in the nuclei of most galaxies. During their active episodes, black holes are powered by accretion discs where gravitational energy is converted into radiation1. Accurately determining black hole masses is key to understand how the population evolves over time and how the black holes relate to their host galaxies2,3,4. Beyond the local universe, z 0.2, the mass is commonly estimated assuming a virialized motion of gas in the close vicinity of the active black holes, traced through broad emission lines5,6. However, this procedure has uncertainties associated with the unknown distribution of the gas clouds. Here, we show that the black hole masses derived from the properties of the accretion disk and virial mass estimates differ by a factor that is inversely proportional to the width of the broad emission lines. This leads to virial mass misestimations up to a factor of six. Our results suggest that a planar gas distribution that is inclined with respect to the line of sight may account for this effect. However, radiation pressure effects on the distribution of gas can also reproduce our results. Regardless of the physical origin, our findings contribute to mitigating the uncertainties in current black hole mass estimations and, in turn, will help us to better understand the evolution of distant supermassive black holes and their host galaxies.

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Support for the work of J.E.M.-R was provided by ‘CONICYT-PCHA/doctorado Nacional para extranjeros/2013-63130316’. P.L. acknowledges support from Fondecyt Project #1161184. H.N. acknowledges support from the Israel Science Foundation grant 234/13. B.T. is a Zwicky postdoctoral fellow.

Author information


  1. Departamento de Astronomía, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 36-D, Santiago, Chile

    • J. E. Mejía-Restrepo
    •  & P. Lira
  2. School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

    • H. Netzer
  3. Institute for Astronomy, Department of Physics, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • B. Trakhtenbrot
  4. Department of Physics, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    • D. M. Capellupo


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J.E.M.-R. and P.L. co-developed the idea and wrote the paper. J.E.M.-R., P.L. and D.M.C. wrote the codes needed for the different measurements and fittings procedures, J.E.M.-R. obtained the measurements and performed the analysis. H.N., D.M.C. and B.T. contributed to the accretion disc calculations, error estimates of the black hole mass, interpretation of the results and improvements to the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. E. Mejía-Restrepo.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figures 1–8 and Supplementary References