This composite image shows the central region of the spiral galaxy NGC 4151, dubbed the "Eye of Sauron" by astronomers for its similarity to the eye of the malevolent character in "The Lord of the Rings". In the "pupil" of the eye, X-rays (blue) from the Chandra X-ray Observatory are combined with optical data (yellow) showing positively charged hydrogen ("H II") from observations with the 1-meter Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope on La Palma. The red around the pupil shows neutral hydrogen detected by radio observations with the NSF's Very Large Array. This neutral hydrogen is part of a structure near the center of NGC 4151 that has been distorted by gravitational interactions with the rest of the galaxy, and includes material falling towards the center of the galaxy. The yellow blobs around the red ellipse are regions where star formation has recently occurred.
A recent study has shown that the X-ray emission was likely caused by an outburst powered by the supermassive black hole located in the white region in the center of the galaxy. Evidence for this idea comes from the elongation of the X-rays running from the top left to the bottom right and details of the X-ray spectrum. There are also signs of interactions between a central source and the surrounding gas, particularly the yellow arc of H II emission located above and to the left of the black hole.
Two different scenarios to explain the X-ray emission have been proposed. One possibility is that the central black hole was growing much more quickly about 25,000 years ago (in Earth's time frame) and the radiation from the material falling onto the black hole was so bright that it stripped electrons away from the atoms in the gas in its path. X-rays were then emitted when electrons recombined with these ionized atoms.