The cans were quite well hidden. They weren't on a direct warp line between any two celestial objects and they were more than 14.3AU from anything else which put them outside the range of the directional scanners on board ships in the normal traffic lanes. I only spotted them by accident when I was making my own safe spot , similarly distant from normal lines of communication. I thought I was quite well hidden so I was surprised when three containers popped up on my scanner almost 13 AU away from me in empty space. Miners regularly anchor secure containers at asteroid belts but there were no asteroids around and these containers were unsecured meaning anyone could access them and take whatever was inside. I was intrigued and decided to investigate.
I know that the right way to do this is via scan probes and that the process takes a few minutes at most but I had a vague memory that back in the early days of EVE (prior to the 2006's Revelation expansion I believe) there were no scan probes and skilled pilots could scan stuff down using the on board directional scanner alone so I decided to give it a go. I didn't realise when I started out that this process would take me several hours to complete. To be honest I could probably have bought new scan probes and trained to use them in less time than it took me to do this the old fashioned way but once I got started it turned out to be a fascinating problem requiring 3 dimensional geometry and a great deal of persistence so I stuck with it.
The directional scanner will find any object up to its maximum range of about 14.3 AU. By successively reducing the scan radius until the object disappears you can get an idea of how far away it is. Reducing the angle you are scanning narrows down the possible line of the object from a full 360° degrees wrap around in steps down to a narrow 5° cone. This is easier said than done but with a few tries you can determine the direction from you to an object and how far away it is.
Sadly the directional scanner (d-scan for short) will not allow you to warp directly to the object you have found so you have to somehow get within a few hundred km of the object (the same grid) by other means. In the simplest case the object will be on a warp path between two celestial objects and you simply warp along that route dropping bookmarks as close to the object as possible along the way. In this case the cans were not on any warp path so I had to create a new warp path through it by dropping multiple bookmarks on existing warp paths until I found a line between two books marks which passed close enough to my target.
Close enough is a relative term in the vastness of space and even a well placed first pass is likely to be still many millions of km from the actual point. Thus several successive warp paths needed to be created each one bringing me a little closer to the goal. I labelled my steps by distance from goal:
12.3AU, 6.47AU, 1.8AU, ....
Whether due to latency, server lag or clumsiness on my part I found it almost impossible to drop bookmarks accurately which was a major reason this took me so long. In the end I had to resort in spamming bookmarks along a route until I eventually got one near the right spot.
0.24AU, 8 million km, 1 million km, ....
EVE's confusing habit of switching from km to AU at about 10 million km doesn't help but when I got down to a mere million km I felt almost there. A million km is a vanishingly small distance on an astronomical scale (1AU = 150 million km) but it is still an impossibly large distance for a space ship with a maximum sub light speed of less than 5km per second.
At 35,000 km I considered flying the rest of the way but it would have taken a couple of hours so I decided to construct one more set of warp lines.
This was only 10 minutes flying time so I pointed my ship in the direction predicted by d-scan and turned on my micro warp drive. At 400m the containers appeared on my overview and I could warp straight to them. Bingo, I had done it.
The containers were empty which was a bit of an anticlimax but then again if there was anything in them it would have been stealing to take it and I am not sure I want to be a thief even in EVE. In any case I actually enjoyed using such an arcane method to scan something down although I will admit that the episode has convinced me to add scan probes to my training list in case I ever need to scan something for real in the future.