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In The Empire Strikes Back film, the opening crawl says:

The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space....

It has also been established in Return of the Jedi that Force users can sense each other:

Chewie whines nervously. Luke stares at the Huge Super Star Destroyer that looms ever larger before them.

LUKE: Vader's on that ship.

If Darth Vader is obsessed with finding Luke and he can sense his presence, the obvious thing to do would be to follow Luke's X-Wing after the battle of Hoth rather than the Millennium Falcon. Why didn't he?

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6 Answers 6

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Because Luke escapes Hoth undetected while the Falcon does not

At the risk of answering the question with the question, it seems that Luke just got lucky. After talking to Wedge on the planet, Luke is seen alone in space leisurely setting a new course to Dagobah:

EXTERIOR: SPACE -- LUKE'S X-WING

Luke's fighter, its wings closed, speeds away from the icy planet. Soon it disappears into the stars.

INTERIOR: LUKE'S X-WING -- COCKPIT

Luke, looking thoughtful, suddenly makes a decision. He flips several switches. The stars shift as he takes his fighter into a steep turn. The X-wing banks sharply and flies away in a new direction. The monitor screen on Luke's control panel prints out a question from the concerned Artoo.

LUKE: (into comlink) There's nothing wrong, Artoo. I'm just setting a new course.

Han on the other hand is instantly in trouble:

EXTERIOR: SPACE -- MILLENNIUM FALCON

The Millennium Falcon speeds away from Hoth, closely followed by one huge Star Destroyer and four tiny TIE fighters. As it is pursued, the Falcon races toward two very bright star-sized objects.

INTERIOR: MILLENNIUM FALCON -- COCKPIT

Inside the cockpit, Chewie lets out a loud howl. Han checks as the ship is buffeted by exploding flak. He appears to be doing six things at once.

HAN: (harried) I saw them! I saw them!

LEIA: Saw what?

HAN: Star Destroyers, two of them, coming right at us.

If Luke had left with Solo, then it is quite reasonable to assume that Vader would have had the ability to sense him eventually (this becomes more apparent in ROTJ) and pursue him specifically (whether he was in the Falcon or his own X-Wing). As it is, The Empire isn't even aware there is an X-Wing alone in deep space headed off to a remote planet inhabited by the galaxy's last Jedi Master. Vader's ability to sense Luke is not omniscient. In fact, it is outlined in ESB as very limited. He reaches out to Luke only when he already knows generally where Luke is and while he still close by ... and even then it seems a "loose" connection:

INTERIOR: VADER'S STAR DESTROYER -- BRIDGE

Vader stands on the bridge, watching as the Millennium Falcon is chased by the TIE fighters. As his Destroyer draws nearer, Vader's breathing gets slightly faster.

VADER: Luke.

INTERIOR: MILLENNIUM FALCON -- SLEEPING QUARTERS

Luke realizes that Vader's ship is very near. He feels resigned to his fate. He senses that he is beaten, more emotionally than physically.

LUKE: Father.

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Out of curiosity - is it possible to read Artoo's question on Luke's monitor? Is it written in Aurabesh? –  RobertF Mar 5 at 16:22
    
IIRC, it isn't shown clearly from Luke's perspective. Not at least in English, and certainly doesn't say "WHAT?!" as it appears later in the script. –  joshbirk Mar 5 at 16:26

Sensing one's presence with the force is an inexact science - if he could pinpoint Luke that easily, he would have found him long ago when he was kicking around on Tatooine.

More importantly, you have to remember that the two forces were separated, and that Luke was heading off to Dagobah while the Millenium Falcon, which was delayed from joining the rest of the fleet, was caught trying to evade the Imperial Fleet. They were right there, and it stands to reason that the Princess of Alderaan and the Rogue Trader right in front of them is a better catch than a 'hunch' given by Vader, especially when there was no indication Vader even knew Luke was on Hoth in the first place.

But, if that's not enough, then consider exactly where Luke DID go after abandoning the Hoth base - Dagobah, to train with Yoda. Not only is Yoda a very powerful Jedi who could probably mask Luke's presence with just a little effort, but Dagobah itself is a planet with a great amount of Force Presence that would cloud Vader's ability to sense Luke there.

And, you will note, it was very hard for Vader to seek Luke out - and Luke up to that point had specifically gone to great lengths, along with the rest of the Rebel Alliance, to avoid being found, but capturing his friends the way he did gave him a unique and advantageous position - Luke had a reason to come to him. In fact, he planned on it, performing a test-run on the Carbonite Freezing Chamber to make sure he could secure Luke once he came to rescue his friends.

So, not only was it easier for Vader to secure Luke's friends, not only was it far more difficult to try to secure Luke in the first place, but securing his friends allowed him to use them as a very effective bait (And it worked!).

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Good response! Darth Vader (and/or his Imperial snowtroopers) actually saw Han Solo and Leia board the Millennium Falcon when it narrowly evaded capture on Hoth. So DV knew who was on board the MF with certainty. Also - Luke Skywalker left Hoth after the MF - remember he watched the MF cruise by as he climbed into his X-wing. By the time Luke was in space the Imperial blockade had been lifted to pursue the MF. DV was no longer in orbit above Hoth & thus couldn't Force sense Luke. And Luke's X-wing was one of many X-wings; there was nothing distinct about its markings as far as I know. –  RobertF Mar 5 at 15:45
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Also, it's not clear whether Vader could, that early on, distinguish Luke from the other Jedi candidate, who was on the Millennium Falcon. –  RBarryYoung Mar 5 at 22:21
    
Also, while it is not specifically mentioned in the original trilogy, it is canon that force-users are capable of hiding their force powers. Darth Sidious did it for two whole movies in the prequels. It's possible (but unlikely) that Luke had some degree of skill in this technique (though obviously not perfect mastery, because in ROTJ -- at a much closer distance -- Vader could sense him). That said, I do like @RBarryYoung's explanation above. –  Adrian Mar 6 at 0:42
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@RBarryYoung: One of the few EU novels which George Lucas had some direct involvement in, Shadows of the Empire, has Vader unable to determine Luke's location due to the presence of both Luke and Leia on Coruscant. Vader hasn't yet figured out that he has two children - he believes Leia's presence in the Force to be some sort of "echo" effect, and intends to ask Palpatine about it later - but he can certainly sense Leia, at least when she is using her rudimentary, likely unconcsious, Force abilities; she was communicating with Luke via the Force. –  James Sheridan Mar 6 at 9:32
    
I had actually thought that one of the reasons Yoda was on Dagobah was because of the tree that was strong in the dark side, and canceled out his aura in the force. I'm not sure where I remember that from, though. –  JohnP Mar 6 at 16:02

It is fully possible the Emperor and Vader knew where Luke went and simply let Yoda do the heavy lifting of training him knowing they could drop the hammer of Vader's identity after he was trained; then sell him on joining the Empire. Best case scenario: he joins them. Worst case scenario: they kill him later. I don't think up until they very end that either of them believed Luke, who'd been a Jedi for all of five minutes, would be able to beat both of them. And, really, if Vader hadn't had a change of heart at the last minute it would have worked.

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Another perspective is that even if the Empire tracked most, or all, of the ships fleeing Hoth, they would have to pick which one(s) they could follow in the time available before the ships all escaped. Luke's X-Wing was just one of numerous X-Wings to flee Hoth. Even if Vader knew Luke would leave on an X-Wing, determining which to follow would be difficult.

The Millennium Falcon, however, was a highly recognizable ship. By that point, it's association with the Rebellion and the probability that at least one of their high value targets (Han) would be on board made it a primary target for pursuit. Yes, Corellian freighters were common. However, Han had made several distinctive alterations, such as the addition of a belly turret, that would make it easier to identify and track.

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Frankly, Vader is not that competent. Please see discussion:

Could Vader really have crushed the Rebels on Hoth?

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Wouldn't Vader let Luke slide by to Dagobah to train with Yoda, and pursue an easier target like the falcon, capture his friends ensuring that Luke would seek them out (in his/Vader's possession) but as a fully trained Jedi like Vader was prior to his turn to the dark side. So could the Emperors/Vader's thinking be, you are so similar to your father and he made the switch to the dark side why wouldn't you, and so if successful, if Luke had turned they would get a full jedi who would make a greater prize for the emperor and a formidable ally for the dark side not to mention they would then have Yoda's location (though they wouldn't know that he had passed away).

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