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31° Good Afternoon

Sky Watch: Tracing Orion's figure

One of my favorite constellations in all the heavens has made its grand return to our evening sky, much as Robert Frost described in the opening lines of his famous poem "Star-Splitter":

You know Orion always comes up sideways.

Throwing a leg up over our fence of the mountains . . .

I remember, as a young child, standing in the snow and gazing into the frosty night sky over Easton, Pa., and marveling at the glistening stars of Orion. At the time, I had no idea what I was seeing, but I found its hourglass shape to be unmistakable and was completely enthralled by its three equally bright central stars, which seemed to form a perfectly straight line.

How unusual, I thought. Could it be that I had actually discovered this amazing stellar configuration?

It wasn't until many years later that I learned that ancient sky watchers had me beat by a few millennia.This ancient star grouping we call Orion was known to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia; the Egyptians saw him as the god Osiris, and the ancient Greeks knew him as the son of the sea god Poseidon and a great and strong hunter.

They had imagined among his stars a mighty hunter. And Orion is one of the few constellations that can be traced to resemble its namesake. Two stars -- Betelgeuse and Bellatrix -- mark the shoulders of the celestial giant. Saiph and Rigel form his knees. And in his midsection lay three stars -- Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka -- that trace his belt.

arms, holding a shield and a club, while a sword hangs from his belt in a hazy patch of light, region of active star-birth known to astronomers as M42 or the Great Orion Nebula. And in place of his head lies a very faint star named Meissa.

Orion is a star grouping that sits directly over the Earth's equator; the westernmost star of the belt (Mintaka) owns this distinction. This means the top half of the constellation is part of the Northern Hemisphere sky, while the lower half is claimed by Southern Hemisphere stargazers. If you lived within the Arctic Circle, you'd see only the Orion's upper body; the converse would be true if you lived in Antarctica.

No matter where in the world you live or travel at this time of year, Orion will be a familiar companion in your sky. But it might not always look the same; if you've ever spotted Orion from the Southern Hemisphere, he seems to be standing on his head since stargazers south of the equator are inverted from those of us up north.