Star Hopping

(published in NightSky May/June 2005)

After the midlife odyssey of career and young children I decided to rekindle the astronomical spark of my youth. Standing in the backyard of my suburban home I resolutely tackled the seeming impossible task of making the puzzle of stars fit the simple beginner star map I held over my head. There are too many stars! Like one of those thousand piece leopard-spot or flower-pedal jig-saw puzzles you get from the clever Aunt at Christmas, it seems like an impossible goal to figure out where to start.

Well, with puzzles and celestial comprehension it is persistence that pays off. Constellation by constellation the night sky evolved for me into a recognizable neighborhood of Greek myth and personal interpretation; Pegasus is the "Big Box", Bootes the "Ice Cream Cone", Cephus and Ophiuchus are both the "House" and Camelopardalis is the "Empty Place That Can’t Be Pronounced".

Along the way I searched my newly learned constellations for those wonders of the night sky marked, like an Arlo Guthrie crime scene, on my star map with circles, crosses and cryptic abbreviation. Using the familiar base of brighter constellation stars I would place my finder scope in what was hoped to be approximately the right place and began to look for a telltale smudge or moderately bright “pointer” star from which to begin my hesitant star hop.

Sometimes my targets would pop cooperatively into the field of view while others, like misplaced eyeglasses or car keys, would defiantly resist repeated and lengthy searches. The reasons for failure were often simple mistaken identity, such as starting on the wrong star or even starting on the wrong star and going the wrong way. To compound the challenge there is the dreaded misaligned finder scope! It doesn’t take an out-of-the-park grand slam into the door jam on the way to the back yard either; just a gentle misaligning nudge may be cause for hours of frustration. Experience has taught me to make a finder scope tweak before every observing session. When the finder and telescope are in complete discord use the telescope eyepiece to locate a distant landmark such as a tree or light on the horizon, then bring the finder into alignment with that stationary target.

There are many challenges to be faced in developing your personal star hopping skills but with determination and patience everyone can do it. Remember the thrill of learning to ride a bicycle for the first time? The young proto-biker barely balanced and swerving along with bandaged knees pumping desperately, not beauty in motion perhaps but most certainly euphoric satisfaction in hard won success! Each telescope, star map and observer combination is different and I can no more explain exactly how to use your tools than Dad could describe what it feels like to ride a bicycle. You will need to learn how much of the sky your finder reveals in relation to your star map as well as the field of view of your eyepieces. With practice you will learn which way is up, down, east and west by trial and error, and the good part is that the scope won’t fall over when you stop observing. After many years of observing I still find myself making the occasional mistake and it only adds to the final reward of having the illusive object drift proudly into view. The hunt gives added value to both Easter Eggs and celestial objects alike.

Conspicuous targets can be stumbled on by slewing around an established marker star in concentric circles but more discreet objects will required the time honored star hop. I star hop by creating imaginary triangles of pointer stars with my desired target and by following hints such as neighboring double stars or asterisms. Build a difficult star hop on repeated steps through established pointer stars, and in a disciplined manner, gradually extend your path of celestial lighthouses till you reach the welcome glow of your homeport. Like an astronomical “Amazing Kreskin” use memory cues as signposts to your goal; over the hockey stick, past the post and slew down at the orange one.

The contrary rules of optics conspire to confuse the novice as reflecting telescopes invert the image so that up becomes down, and refractors produce a mirror image with left and right reversed, but with practice you will become familiar with your scope and the sometimes counter intuitive movement will become natural. Before leaving a known star, use tube movement and reference to charts to ensure you are going in the right direction from your jumping off point. Reinforce this directional bearing with repeated backtracking to the start point.

My first scope, a 4.5” reflector, came with a small finder scope that was nearly unusable and was the cause of much frustration. To accompany the non-finding finder came all the standard “Exit” level telescope features such as the “Vibro-matic” tripod, “auto-blur” focuser and “Toys-R-eyepieces [or no-angle opaque eyepieces]. None the wiser I thought the problem was me, perhaps I was just not cut out for astronomy? The lure of the night sky was irresistible and, [secretly hoping not to prove my ineptitude], I purchased an economical small aperture Dobsonian reflector. I was thrilled to find that with a stable mount and user-friendly accessories I started to build my observing skills as opposed to struggling to overcome hardware handicaps.

The next lesson I learned was that a dark sky greatly enhances every aspect of observing from star hopping to object location and appreciation of detail. Since my backyard is heavily light polluted I became an astro-prowler seeking out more suitable locations. Local sports fields, parks, darkened ski hills and wilderness-logging roads became my heavenly haunts. Searching for faint starlight against a bright background sky is a bit like looking for a tree in the forest. You will find the contrast of a dark sky exposes even the most reclusive photon target. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it is not there, so look smarter not harder!

As I climbed the aperture ladder, through 8” and now 12.5” scopes, I have come to increasingly rely on no-power finders such as the Rigel or Telrad. These finders produce red target rings, which the observer superimposes on the familiar and unmagnified background of constellations and prominently charted stars. Many of my observing partners swear by the use of good quality finder scopes to capture their astronomical prey while I prefer a no-power finder and detailed sky charts for even the most difficult targets.

The greatest benefit of star hopping is the familiarity with the night sky that the observer develops. The overpowering and complex jumble of starlight that faces the fledgling astronomer gradually transforms into easily recognizable constellations, housing astronomical delights like friendly neighbors in a city of stars. Each observing session refreshes the astronomical toolbox of pattern recognition and geometric relationships bringing with it the reward of an intimate connection to the night sky, a reward that is lost to many due to light pollution and jaded apathy. I consider myself an adventure tourist star hopping on a treasure map inherited from the Pirates of Creation.

Hydrogen: a light, colourless, odourless gas which given enough time, turns into everything.