Modeling Mid-Infrared Diagnostics of Obscured Quasars and Starbursts
We analyze the link between active galactic nuclei (AGN) and mid-infrared flux using dust radiative transfer calculations of starbursts realized in hydrodynamical simulations. Focusing on the effect of galaxy dust, we evaluate diagnostics commonly used to disentangle AGN and star formation in ultraluminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGs). We examine these quantities as a function of time, viewing angle, dust model, AGN spectrum, and AGN strength in merger simulations meant to bracket the properties of ULIRGs. Our more obscured starburst begins SF-dominated with significant PAH emission, and ends with a ~10^9 year period of red near-IR colors. At coalescence, when the AGN is most luminous, dust obscures the near-infrared AGN signature, reduces the relative emission from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and enhances the 9.7 micron absorption by silicate grains. Although generally consistent with previous interpretations, our results imply none of these indicators can unambiguously estimate the AGN luminosity fraction in all cases. Some identify relatively unobscured AGN where the direct torus emission is observed, while others indicate more highly obscured AGN. We show that a combination of the extinction feature at 9.7 microns, the PAH strength, and a near-infrared slope can simultaneously constrain the AGN fraction and dust grain distribution for a wide range of obscuration. We find that this procedure, accessible to the James Webb Space Telescope, may estimate the AGN power as tightly as the hard X-ray flux alone, thereby providing a valuable future cross-check and constraint for large samples of distant ULIRGs.