It’s hard to think of a star that’s more than eight times the mass of the Sun as puny. But that’s the case for the least-massive star of Mintaka, which forms the right end of Orion’s Belt.

Mintaka consists of at least three stars, and perhaps more. The stars are all fairly close together. Two of them, in fact, are so close that they orbit each other once every six days.

The puny star is a member of that close pair. Its bigger companion probably is a couple of dozen times the Sun’s mass, and almost 200 thousand times the Sun’s brightness. The more distant member of the trio is only slightly less impressive.

All three stars are “burning” the nuclear fuel in their cores at a furious rate. As a result, they’ll live much shorter lives than stars like the Sun — millions or tens of millions of years, versus 10 billion years for the Sun.

The heavier stars will burn out first. And when they do, they’ll end their lives as supernovae — titanic explosions that briefly outshine billions of normal stars. The puny star appears to be on the dividing line between a supernova and a less-violent demise, so its fate is uncertain.

The stars are all “fusing” lighter elements in their cores to make heavier ones. When they die, those elements will be expelled into space. In the distant future, they could be incorporated into new stars, planets — and perhaps living organisms.

The same fate awaits the other stars of Orion’s Belt — big stars with bigger futures.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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