Published in The Astronomical Journal, Volume 149, Issue 5, April 14, 2015, pages 1-23.
The definitive version is available at https://doi.org/10.1088/0004-6256/149/5/155.
We present narrow- and medium-band Hubble Space Telescope imaging, with additional supporting ground-based imaging, spectrophotometry, and Fabry–Perot interferometric data, for eight galaxies identified as hosting a fading active galactic nucleus (AGN). These are selected to have AGN-ionized gas projected kpc from the nucleus and energy budgets with a significant shortfall of ionizing radiation between the requirement to ionize the distant gas and the AGN as observed directly, indicating fading of the AGN on ≈50,000 yr timescales. This paper focuses on the host-galaxy properties and origin of the gas. In every galaxy, we identify evidence of ongoing or past interactions, including tidal tails, shells, and warped or chaotic dust structures; a similarly selected sample of obscured AGNs with extended ionized clouds shares this high incidence of disturbed morphologies. Several systems show multiple dust lanes in different orientations, broadly fit by differentially precessing disks of accreted material viewed ~1.5 Gyr after its initial arrival. The host systems are of early Hubble type; most show nearly pure de Vaucouleurs surface brightness profiles and Sérsic indices appropriate for classical bulges, with one S0 and one SB0 galaxy. The gas has a systematically lower metallicity than the nuclei; three systems have abundances uniformly well below solar, consistent with an origin in tidally disrupted low-luminosity galaxies, while some systems have more nearly solar abundances (accompanied by such signatures as multiple Doppler components), which may suggest redistribution of gas by outflows within the host galaxies themselves. These aspects are consistent with a tidal origin for the extended gas in most systems, although the ionized gas and stellar tidal features do not always match closely. Unlike extended emission regions around many radio-loud AGNs, these clouds are kinematically dominated by rotation, in some cases in warped disks. Outflows can play important kinematic roles only in localized regions near some of the AGNs. We find only a few sets of young star clusters potentially triggered by AGN outflows. In UGC 7342 and UGC 11185, multiple luminous star clusters are seen just within the projected ionization cones, potentially marking star formation triggered by outflows. As in the discovery example, Hanny's Voorwerp/IC 2497, there are regions in these clouds where the lack of a strong correlation between Hα surface brightness and ionization parameter indicates that there is unresolved fine structure in the clouds. Together with thin coherent filaments spanning several kpc, persistence of these structures over their orbital lifetimes may require a role for magnetic confinement. Overall, we find that the sample of fading AGNs occur in interacting and merging systems, that the very extended ionized gas is composed of tidal debris rather than galactic winds, and that these host systems are bulge-dominated and show no strong evidence of triggered star formation in luminous clusters.
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