Missing Halos in the High-Energy Sky

What’s going on in our high-energy sky? Powerful phenomena abound in our universe, and they can produce photons with tremendous energies. A new study explores a high-energy mystery from one of these sources: active galactic nuclei, or AGN.

gamma-ray spectrum

Gamma rays span a broad range of energies in the most energetic part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Very high-energy gamma rays initially emitted from AGN have energies above 100 GeV, but these are reprocessed by interactions with background photons to energies of 1–100 GeV. [Ulflund]

Where Are the Gamma Rays?

Active galactic nuclei — the accreting supermassive black holes lurking at the centers of some galaxies — dot our universal landscape, spewing out very high-energy gamma-ray photons within jets moving at nearly the speed of light. These energetic photons speed across the sky — but they don’t travel unencumbered.

Theory predicts that this energetic emission should be effectively reprocessed as it slams into the cosmic microwave background, generating a compact sheath of gamma-ray emission in the 1–100 GeV range, beamed forward in the direction of the jets emitted from each AGN. But there’s a problem: we don’t see this expected flux.

AGN sources

Galactic coordinates of the sources used to generate the authors’ stacked analysis. Two types of AGN-containing galaxies are included: FR I and FR II galaxies. [Broderick et al. 2019]

One possible explanation for the missing light is that these traveling photons could be deflected from their path by a strong, large-scale magnetic field threading through intergalactic space. This would convert the compact, forward-beamed sheath into a more diffuse, harder-to-spot gamma-ray halo around each AGN. In a new study, a team of scientists led by Avery Broderick (University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Canada) has gone on the hunt for these missing gamma-ray halos.

Stacks of Galaxies

Though the proposed gamma-ray halos may be too faint to spot individually, Broderick and collaborators suggest that by stacking a bunch of gamma-ray observations of off-axis AGN on top of one another, we should easily be able to detect their combined halo — if it exists.

radio jet alignment

The process of aligning the jets in two different radio images: an FR I galaxy (top) and an FR II galaxy (bottom). [Broderick et al. 2019]

To do this, the AGN must first be oriented in the same direction. Broderick and collaborators use radio observations of AGN jets pointed off our line of sight to identify each jet’s orientation. They determine the transformations needed to align each of the radio jets, and then apply this transformation to corresponding Fermi-telescope gamma-ray observations of the active galaxies. The result is a sample of nearly 9,000 gamma-ray observations of AGN, all oriented in the same direction.

Broderick and collaborators then stack these observations and compare their results to a model of what we would expect to see if an intergalactic magnetic field were deflecting the gamma-ray photons, generating a faint halo around the AGN.

Still No Halos

gamma-ray halos

Top: the authors’ stacked gamma-ray observations for FR I (left) and FR II (right) galaxies. Bottom: the expected signals if gamma-ray halos were present. The observations clearly rule out the presence of faint halos. [Broderick et al. 2019]

Intriguingly, the authors find no hint of a combined gamma-ray halo. Their non-detection places strict limits on the strength of the intergalactic magnetic field allowed in this picture, and it rules out magnetic fields as an explanation for why we don’t see the gamma rays we expect from AGN.

What does this mean? Broderick and collaborators argue that this requires us to consider brand new physics in high-energy processes. There must be some unexpected mechanism that prevents the creation of the expected gamma-ray halos, either because the highest-energy emission is suppressed in gamma-ray bright AGN, or because some process affects this emission before it can lead to the generation of halos. The mystery deepens!


“Missing Gamma-Ray Halos and the Need for New Physics in the Gamma-Ray Sky,” Avery E. Broderick et al 2018 ApJ 868 87. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/aae5f2