The Black Hole in the Eye of SauronS

Behold that shining blue light at the center of this evil eye in space — long named the Eye of Sauron for its resemblance to the malevolent gaze from the Lord of the Rings saga.

That blue light represents X-ray images of the Eye, aka NGC 4151, and those X-ray emissions are believed to be caused by a supermassive black hole at the heart of this malevolent spiral galaxy, which is gazing at us from a scant 43 million light years away. As the Chandra Observatory explains:

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.

The second possibility also involved a substantial inflow of material into the black hole relatively recently. In this scenario the energy released by material flowing into the black hole in an accretion disk created a vigorous outflow of gas from the surface of the disk. This outflowing gas directly heated gas in its path to X-ray emitting temperatures. Unless the gas is confined somehow, it would expand away from the region in less than 100,000 years. In both of these scenarios, the relatively short amount of time since the last episode of high activity by the black hole may imply such outbursts occupy at least about 1% of the black hole's lifetime.