Extreme variability in an active galactic nucleus: Gaia16aax

We present the results of a multiwavelength follow-up campaign for the luminous nuclear transient Gaia16aax, which was first identified in 2016 January. The transient is spatially consistent with the nucleus of an active galaxy at z = 0.25, hosting a black hole of mass ∼6 × 10^8 M. The nucleus brightened by more than 1 mag in the Gaia G band over a timescale of less than 1 yr, before fading back to its pre-outburst state over the following 3 yr. The optical spectra of the source show broad Balmer lines similar to the ones present in a preoutburst spectrum. During the outburst, the H α and H β emission lines develop a secondary peak. We also report on the discovery of two transients with similar light-curve evolution and spectra: Gaia16aka and Gaia16ajq. We consider possible scenarios to explain the observed outbursts. We exclude that the transient event could be caused by a microlensing event, variable dust absorption or a tidal encounter between a neutron star and a stellar mass black hole in the accretion disc. We consider variability in the accretion flow in the inner part of the disc, or a tidal disruption event of a star ≥1 M by a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole as the most plausible scenarios. We note that the similarity between the light curves of the three Gaia transients may be a function of the Gaia alerts selection criteria.