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  How to find the best astronomical targets with a telescope or binoculars  
 

For a list of star hops, click here

 
What is star hopping?

Star hopping is a well-known method for finding objects such as star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies in the night sky. You start from some star or constellation that you know well and can easily find in the sky, such as the Big Dipper. From there, you visually "hop" from one star to another, until you reach the object you are seeking. This technique can be used even for objects that are much too dim to see with the naked eye. This is done by pointing your telescope toward a star that you can see with the naked eye, and then moving the telescope slightly to the location of the dim target.

For example, suppose you want to observe Messier 101, a large but dim spiral galaxy that is above the handle of the Big Dipper. If you know how to spot the Big Dipper, you can easily find Mizar, the star at the bend in the handle. (And it is NOT necessary to know the star names; you just need to recognize the visual pattern.)

If you have a telescope that is equipped with a finderscope, you can easily point the finder at Mizar. Looking through the finderscope, you should be able to see a chain of four stars above Mizar. You can use the finderscope to follow this chain of stars to the left, and then make a slight turn to the upper left, to the location of Messier 101, as shown in the chart below. Even if you can't see M101 through the finderscope, you can still point it at that spot of sky. Then, looking through the telescope with a low-power eyepiece, you should be able to spot the faint ball of light that is this distant galaxy, M101.
Star hopping is just as simple as that. To use star hopping successfully, you need (1) a starting point that you can easily recognize, such as the Big Dipper, (2) a good set of charts and directions for hopping from one star to the next, and (3) the patience to follow each hop carefully, so your telescope ends up pointing at the right spot.

For whom is star hopping useful?

Some modern telescopes have a "go-to" feature, which uses motors, sensors, and computer technology to point to targets automatically. For those who have such telescopes and know how to use them, star hopping in not really necessary. But many telescopes, even large ones, do not have go-to capability, and of course neither does a simple pair of binoculars. For anyone who owns a pair of binoculars or a non-go-to telescope, star hopping is probably the best and most reliable way to find objects in the night sky. Even if you have a telescope with go-to capability (as I do), you can learn a lot more about the night sky by star hopping to find some of your favorite deep-sky targets. In addition, there is the satisfaction you will get from finding a dim and distant celestial target without the aid of a computer.

How are these stop hops designed?

My goal was to use just a handful of easily recognizable constellations or star groups (less than ten) as the starting points for all of these star hops. Therefore, once you learn to recognize even one of these starting points (such as the Summer Triangle), you can use it to help you locate many different deep-sky objects. All of the star hops use one of the following starting points:

The Big Dipper
The constellation Cassiopeia
The Spring Triangle
The Summer Triangle
The constellation Sagittarius
The Great Square of Pegasus
The Winter Hexagon

Some of these may be familiar to you already, but if they are not, you can quickly learn to find them in the night sky by using either a planisphere or an all-sky start chart that is appropriate for the month and time of night you are observing. Each star hop begins with a star chart that shows one of these starting points, This is followed by a second, more detailed chart that shows how to hop to the target. The star charts were created using the excellent freeware Cartes du Ciel.

Each of the star hops on this website includes a printer-friendly version--a one-page pdf file that you can print out and take outside with you to use at the telescope.

What objects are included?

I have started with well-known astronomical targets that are visible on fall evenings. My plan is to gradually add to the list of star hops over time. Here is a list of all the star hops that are currently available.

Star charts created with Cartes du Ciel