Nova Hunter's Handbook


Prepared by the AAVSO Nova Search Committee
Editor and Chairman
Reverend K. C. Beckmann

A Visual Systematic Search for Novae

Welcome to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Nova Search program. The AAVSO first established the Nova Search Committee in the early 1930's with the belief that a serious stargazer might contribute to astronomy through a systematic search for novae in the Milky Way galaxy. The Nova Search Committee consists of several members of the AAVSO who are interested in and dedicated to the search for galactic novae.

The systematic search consists of scanning those regions of the Milky Way galaxy where it is believed that most novae are likely to be observed. These regions have been divided into areas. Each search area is about 10 degrees in declination and one hour of right ascension. In total, the current program boasts of 230 different search areas. Newer areas are identified by a letter accompanying the number. Additional areas identified with an asterisk are known as "common areas." Common areas are areas which have a high recurrence of new novae. These areas are included in an article reprinted later in this work.

Observers are welcome to choose areas of interest to them and encouraged to search the "common areas" on a regular basis. While it is impossible to cover the entire sky with a thorough search, the more areas committed to memory or familiarization, the more chances an observer will have in discovering a nova.

Ten by fifty millimeter binoculars serve as standard optical equipment for the nova search program. We also suggest access to the field or desk edition of Tiron's Sky Atlas 2000.0. Along with a small flashlight and this copy of "The Nova Hunter's Handbook," a beginner will be ready for novae searching the Milky Way skies.

It is also helpful to locate areas to be searched in a star atlas and duplicate the area, usually by placing a piece of tracing paper over the specific area. When drawing the area, an observer should include one degree outside the boundaries. An observer should trace star images in pencil and then compare them with another atlas or the sky, to correct or adjust the images drawn. Once these steps have been taken, the traced copies may become the master maps which the observer uses in his/her search for novae.

Each month the nova hunter is asked to prepare an observer's report and to mail it to the AAVSO Nova Search Committee no later than the tenth of the month following the month in which the observations were made. The Committee will catalogue and archive observations for future reference. Each observer should take special care to complete the nova search report (NSR) included in this book. The report acknowledges areas searched, date and time (Universal Date and Time) of the search, as well as the limiting magnitude. You may request additional NSR forms from the Nova Search Committee or AAVSO Headquarters.

Should an observer discover a nova, he/she should contact a verifier. "Verifiers" are those seasoned amateurs and professionals who are experienced in verifying the existence of novae. Once a discovery has been established, the information on the probable nova (its position, brightness, etc.) and its discoverer should be sent to AAVSO Headquarters. From there, the AAVSO sends the information to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the probable nova is confirmed or denied and credit for the nova discovery is publicly announced in the International Astronomical Union Circular. Later the discovery appears in the AAVSO Alert Notices and other works.

To date, several AAVSO members have visually discovered one or more galactic novae, including: Dr. Bernard Dawson discovered Nova Puppis 1942; Manfred Durkëfalden independently discovered Nova Cygni 1975; Warren Morrison discovered Nova Cygni 1978; Peter Collins discovered Nova Vulpeculae 1984 No.2 and Nova Cygni 1992, he also independently discovered Nova Cygni 1978 and Nova Vulpeculae 1987; Reverend Beckmann independently discovered Nova Cygni 1978, Nova Aquilae 1982, and Nova Vulpeculae 1987; Alfredo Pereira independently discovered Nova Aquilae 1999 No.2; Gary Nowak independently discovered Nova Aquilae 1999 No.2. Several other AAVSO members have photographically discovered novae, including Robert McNaught, Ben Mayer, and William Liller.

Two articles about visual nova hunting which appeared in other AAVSO publications have been reprinted here. Each article describes the spirit of a nova hunter's search. Nova searching may require years of diligent search and fine-tuning of one's skills. We believe this handbook will help a new observer become acquainted with the Nova Search Program.

Books to read about visual nova hunting include: The Cambridge Guide to Astronomical Discovery by Bill Liller (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 1992); New Horizons in Amateur Astronomy by Grant Fjermedal (Perigee Book, New York, NY 1989); The Cambridge Astronomy Guide by Bill Liller and Ben Mayer (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 1985); and Ghost Ships in the Night by Ken Beckmann (Lewiston Press, Lewiston, MI 1994). Additional articles on the discovery of nova and visual nova hunting may be found in two international periodicals, Astronomy Magazine and Sky & Telescope Magazine.

If after reading this handbook and initiating your search for nova, you believe you may have discovered a nova, we encourage you to contact the AAVSO at American Association of Variable Star Observers, 49 Bay State Road, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, phone (617) 354-0484, fax (617) 354-0665 or contact via email at

While there are no guarantees that an observer will ever discover a nova, a systematic search for novae in the Milky Way galaxy will increase one's chances many fold. We hope that those who read this handbook will be successful in their endeavors to discover a new star in the heavens.

More of the Nova Handbook

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