After recent sensitivity upgrades at the Keck Interferometer (KI), systematic interferometric 2 μm studies of the innermost dust in nearby Seyfert nuclei are within observational reach. Here, we present the analysis of new interferometric data of NGC 4151, discussed in context of the results from recent dust reverberation, spectro-photometric, and interferometric campaigns. The complete data set gives a complex picture, in particular the measured visibilities from now three different nights appear to be rather insensitive to the variation of the nuclear luminosity. KI data alone indicate two scenarios: the K-band emission is either dominated to ~90% by size scales smaller than 30 mpc, which falls short of any dust reverberation measurement in NGC 4151 and of theoretical models of circum-nuclear dust distributions. Or contrary, and more likely, the K-band continuum emission is dominated by hot dust (≳1300 K) at linear scales of about 50 mpc. The linear size estimate varies by a few tens of percent depending on the exact morphology observed. Our interferometric, deprojected centro-nuclear dust radius estimate of 55 ± 5 mpc is roughly consistent with the earlier published expectations from circum-nuclear, dusty radiative transfer models, and spectro-photometric modeling. However, our data do not support the notion that the dust emission size scale follows the nuclear variability of NGC 4151 as an RdustL0.5nuc scaling relation. Instead variable nuclear activity, lagging, and variable dust response to illumination changes need to be combined to explain the observations.

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Published in The Astrophysical Journal, v. 715, no. 2, p. 736-742.

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