Will Star-Hopping Become a Lost Art?

Jack Kramer

During an observing session at a remote site, a friend of mine packed up early and went home in frustration. The sky was clear and very dark - an ideal situation for deep sky observers. The cause of his frustration was the set of encoders he had installed on the axes of his Dobsonian-mounted telescope. The encoders and the little computer that comes with them were working okay, but he had a problem with a slightly off-center altitude axis. Faced with an inability to use the electronic finder, he chose not to waste his time searching for objects using just the conventional finder scope. So he went home.

There's perhaps a bit more to this story. You see, my friend works two jobs and that doesn't leave much time for observing. His rationale is that on those few nights when he observes, he wants to see galaxies, nebulae and star clusters...not spend most of his time searching for them. This seems like a rather good reason to use an electronic finder; after all, even those who have the luxury of ample observing time are using computer-aided locating devices. Some of these are built right into the latest commercially-manufactured telescopes. I had tried to convince my friend not to go home, even pointing out to him that he was approaching observing with the same frenetic mentality with which he approaches gainful employment. If astronomy is to be enjoyed as a hobby, it should be a change of pace - something relaxing. My gentle cajoling was for nought.

Increasingly, those new to the hobby are impatient to see objects through the telescope; they become restive when faced with the prospect of locating objects by star-hopping. The availability of high-tech gadgets to aid their search is an enticement. Don't get me wrong, I think it's marvelous that we amateurs now have ready access to a level of technology that even some professionals didn't have available only a generation ago. And there are those who glory in the sheer wealth of technology that has become an inseparable part of the amateur astronomy scene. Everyone who pursues the hobby of astronomy has a right to enjoy it at whatever level he or she chooses. What is of some concern is that we may be losing one of the keystones of amateur astronomy - feeling really at home under the night sky.

My contacts with professional astronomers have confirmed what I've heard elsewhere. It is those who pursue astronomy as a hobby who really know their way around the night sky. Professionals are concerned about the lofty problems of astrophysics. When they set eye to eyepiece, it is with a very limited and specific goal in mind. Time in the observatory chamber is scrupulously allocated. Professionals do not have the freedom to roam aimlessly. That's why observatory instruments are computer-guided. In fact, the professional need only know the coordinates of the object of interest, not the fact that it's located in the constellation Cygnus. And of course, you just don't go star-hopping with a 3.5 meter telescope! Once in awhile, we even hear about professionals who also pursue astronomy as a hobby. Apparently, they recognize a clear distinction between the two.

Having logged over one thousand deep sky objects, I sort of know my way around the night sky. I say "sort of" because every now and then I still do get lost up there. I became interested in astronomy as a teenager, and it has taken about forty years to reach the one thousand mark. That classifies me as an "old timer" and perhaps something of a slowpoke. I didn't start out with a goal of seeing a certain number of deep sky objects, that's just the way things turned out after forty years of observing. Many objects fatten the log book simply because one tends to "discover" a lot of interesting things in the process of star-hopping. As you go deeper into space, the star-hopping often is replaced with galaxy-hopping in constellations such as Virgo.

I've taken it as a personal goal to help as many newcomers as possible learn their way around the sky. Our club has made it a practice at each meeting to set aside about twenty minutes for a presentation on how to star-hop to some interesting objects currently visible in the evening sky. The presentation job is rotated among different members who are experienced observers. At times, an entire program is devoted to wandering the sky. And this is still how most newcomers begin their observing. Many find a unique thrill in finding things, confirming for themselves that they are spacefarers who can get from point A to point B. Witness the popularity of the "0 power" finders such as the Telrad.

I don't advocate that interested people be required to pass a star-hopping test that grants them a license to be anointed as amateur astronomers. But I do contend that knowledge of the sky is a time-consuming, but important rite of passage for the amateur. It's something that sets us apart from the all-business professional. If this stage of the journey is bypassed, then something elegant will have gone out of amateur astronomy. The latest technology will always be there, and so it should. It's unfortunate, though, that technology is feeding an impatience among more and more newcomers - a desire for immediate gratification. Perhaps that is one reason why we don't see many young people in amateur astronomy - patience is an infrequent strong suit. Of course, that generalization isn't always true. My friend who went home in frustration is fifty-five years old.

There's a common trait among many experienced amateurs who are deeply into astrophotography and CCD imaging. During the course of a night after they tire of the intensity of following a guidestar or integrating electronic images, they kick back and just relax with some wandering of the night sky that they know so well. One commented that it's nice to return to one's roots now and then. They can do this because they know how and when to relax. They have progressed logically within the hobby. I think I know the answer to my initial question. Star-hopping won't become a lost art, but the practitioners may become fewer. Pursue astronomy on whatever level you choose, but don't suffer burnout on an avocation that should be a relaxing departure from your workaday world.