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Orion’s Head

When spring arrives in March, the Sun will stand near the fish outlined by the constellation Pisces. That hasn’t always been the Sun’s home for the start of spring, though. About 6500 years ago, it appeared just above the head of Orion the hunter.

Orion is best known for his sparkling belt and sword. The tiny triangle of stars that marks his head doesn’t look nearly as impressive. Yet the stars themselves really are standouts.

The brightest of the three is Lambda Orionis. It’s actually a pair of stars locked in a tight orbit. Both stars are many times bigger, hotter, and brighter than the Sun. In fact, the system’s leading light is a member of the hottest class of stars. It’s tens of thousands of degrees hotter than the Sun, and more than 160,000 times brighter. That makes it easily visible across more than a thousand light-years of space.

The other stars in Orion’s head are Phi-1 and Phi-2 Orionis. They represent the hunter’s cheeks. Although they share a name, they aren’t related — they’re hundreds of light-years apart. But they do have something in common: Both are much more impressive than the Sun.

Orion is low in the eastern sky at nightfall. Look for his belt — a short line of three bright stars — extending almost straight up from the horizon. The bright orange star Betelgeuse is to the left of the belt. The faint triangle that makes up Orion’s head is above Betelgeuse.

Tomorrow: a deadly blast.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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