Most people want to see the planets when buying a telescope. Planets of our solar system are an easy and beautiful target for the telescope. They are simple to find with the naked eye on the night sky. If you are a beginner and you don’t know where to find them look for brightest stars with red or yellow color. Another option is to download any star map app to your phone. I’m using an app called Stellarium which is also available for desktop and laptop computers. Sometimes, the pair of binoculars is enough to see
planets but not enough to see details. For that, you need a telescope.
Telescope To See Planets
To see planets, you need a real telescope because the binoculars have not enough magnification. The problem with planets is that they are very small on the sky. Some planets look like very bright stars, and they will still look like bright stars in the binoculars. So, what telescope do you need to see the bigger disk of the planet? You need a high powered telescope. Power of the telescope is the actual magnification you can get from it. The two main types of the telescopes are reflecting and refracting telescopes. But, for the planets, it really doesn’t matter which type you buy. The important factor is the magnification. The rule of thumb is to have a long telescope(focal length).
Magnification is closely related to the focal length and the eyepiece you look through. If you have 1000mm telescope and 10mm eyepiece you get 100x magnification(divide 1000mm by 10mm). However, keep in mind that the 2x diameter of the telescope limits the magnification. So, for the 100x magnification, you need minimum 50mm aperture(diameter). For planets, I recommend a maximum of 200x magnification because otherwise, you will have a hard time to focus and keep the planet in the view. It is also a good idea to go for a bigger aperture(diameter) because it can help you to see more surface details of the planets.
Still, don’t think you can see all the planets of our solar system in details with the basic telescope. You are limited to the biggest and closest planets. But, they are beautiful, and you won’t be disappointed. The rest is not such interesting anyway.
Mercury Through a Telescope
The surface of the Mercury looks very similar to our Moon. It is very hard to observe because it is the closest planet to the Sun and always low on the horizon. You need at least 200x magnification to see any surface details because it is the smallest planet in our solar system, little bigger than our Moon. Overall, you need advanced telescope as well as some experience to observe the Mercury. It’s not going to amaze you, but it’s good to know that you can see it when you buy a more expensive telescope and gather some observing experience.
Venus Through a Telescope
The Venus is a special planet to observe because it has phases like our Moon. However, it is also very tricky to see. Venus is visible only shortly before the sunrise and after sunset. Another problem is that it sits in low altitude where there is a lot of haze and atmospheric turbulence. It’s permanently covered in thick clouds so you won’t be able to see any surface details. Some astronomers like to look at Venus during the day because it is higher on the sky and sometimes visible despite the sun on the sky. But, you have to be very careful to not look into the sun by mistake because you can damage the telescope but also permanently damage your eyesight.
Many astronomers like to observe the Venus because of a mysterious phenomenon is known as Ashen Light, first observed in 1643. It looks like a faint glowing on the dark side(night portion) of the Venus. It is not scientifically confirmed, but the theories are: its lightning in the atmosphere, or it can be connected to some geological activity on the surface. The recent theory is that the temperature of the atmosphere is so hight(460°C) that causes the red glow on the dark side. So, keep an eye on Venus, and maybe you also encounter the mysterious Ashen Light.
Mars Through a Telescope
To see at least some details of Mars, you have to use very high magnification. In binoculars or a small telescope, Mars is only a red dot. It is the red color because of the iron oxides in the layer of the dust that covers the surface of the Mars. But, if you have the right telescope and perfect seeing conditions, you can expect to see interesting things like:
Polar Caps: yes, Mars also has polar caps like our Earth, and they grow and shrink with the Mars seasons like on Earth. They are made of frozen carbon dioxide and water.
Dark spots: in early days, astronomers thought that these spots are green areas of vegetation that are changing because of the seasons on Mars. Nowadays, we know that these dark spots are crater areas and they change colors over time. The reason behind the change is the winds on the surface covering and uncovering the spots with the fine red dust.
Clouds: the Mars has own atmosphere composed mostly by carbon dioxide. With a good magnification and perfect seeing conditions, you can sometimes see clouds and fog on the surface of the Mars. White visible clouds are usually around the equator of the planet. There was also an event in 2018 when massive dust storm covered the whole planet in the dust clouds.
Good practice with Mars is to observe it frequently and in longer sessions. Mars rotates every 24h and 37min, so if you plan your observations correctly, you can see the whole planet surface.
Jupiter Through a Telescope
Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system. It is a gas giant, and it’s 318x bigger than the Earth. The atmosphere is violent, mostly made of molecular hydrogen and helium. Jupiter is one of the best planets to see through the telescope. You can even see 4 moons orbiting the planet, sometimes casting the shadow on the atmosphere which is a spectacular thing to see. Jupiter is famous for his cloud bands and the Great Red Spot which is a high-pressure region.
The Great Red Spot is a massive permanent storm that is being observed for 180 years already, since 1830. Observings from the 1600s also revealed some giant spot on the surface that may have been the same storm. The Great Red Spot itself is twice the size of the Earth! We don’t know how or when it was created.
As well as with Venus, the Jupiter is covered in a thick layer of clouds, so no surface features are visible, but the clouds are so magnificent to look at that it doesn’t even matter. You don’t need a very powerful telescope for it, and with 100x magnification, the details are starting to be visible. But, I would suggest a bigger aperture telescope to have better resolution and details in the image.
Saturn Through a Telescope
Saturn is my favorite planet to observe. It is the second largest planet after the Jupiter. Saturn is 95 times more massive than Earth. Everyone knows Saturn because of his spectacular rings. And you can see them in the telescope with 25x magnification or higher. So, you can also use better binoculars to look at the rings, and you don’t need the telescope for it. I think that it is the most beautiful thing on the sky to point the telescope at. If you want to see more details like cloud bands, you will need at least 4-inch aperture. Saturn disk is 1/6 of Jupiter, so it is not easy to observe it on low magnification.
Big aperture and high magnification can reveal Cassini Division discovered in 1675 by astronomer Giovanni Cassini. It is a black division between the ring A and ring B. Cassini Divison is not an empty space but the less dense area of the rings, so it looks like a gap. Another cool feature of the Saturn rings is the shadow that rings casting on the planet. Moreover, there are many Saturn moons to see. With only 4-inch aperture, you can see the biggest moon- Titan. Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has a dense atmosphere and the only object other than Earth where evidence of surface liquid was found. To see more moons, you need aperture at least 10-inches large.
Uranus and Neptune Through a Telescope
I will cover both planets very shortly in this one section. Both planets are very far away from us, and even with 200x or more magnification, you won’t see details on them. They will appear only as slightly bigger blue stars in your eyepiece. You can try it, of course, and finish the list of all the planets in our solar system. Sadly, poor Pluto is not part of planets anymore, its classified as a dwarf planet now.
If you want to have the best results observing the planets, you should also check my article with 10 Tips To Improve The View Of The Planets. But, don’t limit yourself only to look at planets with the telescope. There are beautiful things in space called Deep Sky Objects, and many of them are even better to look at compared to planets. These objects are nebulas and star cluster in our galaxy or other distant galaxies. And I will tell you more about them in the next article about the Messier Objects.