How To See Details Of Planets With A Telescope

best planet telescope
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Wanting to use a telescope for planet viewing? The following gives pointers on getting the best views, starting with the telescopes that offer the best features and then what to expect. It covers the Go-To telescopes as well as others that are popular right now.

Short on time right now? This popular telescope at Amazon has rave reviews — check it out.

Table of Contents

How Much For A Planet Viewing Telescope?

The price can vary. For those listed in this telescope buying guide, you are looking at between $200 and $2000. You’ll find cheaper telescopes in this article I wrote for beginners, but not necessarily the best telescope for viewing details of planets and galaxies.

Here is a selection of popular planet viewing telescopes and their prices…

Compare Telescopes for Seeing Planets

This table gives a quick overview of some popular planet viewing telescopes. You’ll find more info with detailed reviews further down.

SkyWatcher6″ Dobsonianf/8Solid mount$See Price at Amazon
Celestron Nexstar 127SLT5″ Makf/12Star locating$See Price at Amazon
Celestron Nexstar 6SE6″ SCT f/10Fully automated$$See Price at Amazon
Sky-Watcher PoED4.7″ APO Refractor f/8Lightweight$$$$See Price at Amazon
Celestron NexStar 8SE8″ SCT f/10Fully automated$$$See Price at Amazon

What Can I See Through A Telescope?

What can you see with a telescope? You can see all the planets of our solar system with a telescope. The detail will depend on the telescope itself, the eyepiece, your skill, and atmospheric conditions. You’ll see more through a telescope as you gain skill and with optimal equipment and conditions.

One thing though you should know, you won’t get those beautiful images you see from NASA. These are from high powered telescopes and not the detail you are likely to see through a home telescope.

What To Look For In A Telescope For Planetary Viewing

What telescope is best for viewing planets?

Here are eight factors to consider if you are looking for a telescope for this reason.

Aperture

The aperture size is important.

What size telescope should I get to see all the planets in our solar system? You will get the best views of all the planets with a decent aperture size. To observe planets or stars, you’ll do best with a refractor telescope of no less than 3 to 5″, or a reflector telescope no less than 6″.

So, the average useful aperture size for viewing planets will differ with telescope type.

In general, the larger the aperture the more light is captured and the brighter the distant planet will appear. An 8″ reflector, for example, will give you better views, but the things to consider here are the weight and portability.

Magnification

Magnification is important, but it has a limit of use.

What magnification telescope do I need to see planets? As a general rule…the maximum best-attained magnification for a specific telescope is somewhere within 50× per inch (or 2x per mm) of the aperture size.

For example, an aperture of 5″ could provide the maximum useful magnification of 250x. This is the degree of magnification before your view becomes distorted (blurred). CAVEAT: this will depend on atmospheric conditions. With poor (turbulent) atmospheric conditions, the MU magnification will be reduced.

To work out the MU magnification you can expect with each eyepiece in good atmospheric conditions, simply divide the FL of the telescope by the FL of the eyepiece in use.

How to calculate telescope magnification

Here’s an example: A telescope with an FL of 800 mm with an eyepiece with an FL of 10 mm means a telescope magnification of 80x. Whereas, an eyepiece with a focal length of 25 mm with the same telescope would yield a magnification of 32x (800÷25).

Focal Ratio

Focal ratio (f/) is the telescope’s focal length divided by its aperture size. Telescopes with high focal ratios (f/) are best for viewing planets

These have focal ratios of about 8 (f/8) or above. They are also referred to as ‘slow telescopes‘. These have a narrow-field suited to planet observation. 

Extra Eyepieces

Buying extra eyepieces (and incorporating a Barlow lens) will help with magnification. The best magnification will differ with the planets and the observing conditions. I wrote more on this in my article on the best eyepieces for the job.

More than likely you will need one or more extra eyepieces for planetary viewing with your telescope.

The smaller the eyepiece’s focal length, the greater the magnification to expect, but keep in mind the limit (max magnification).

Also, a Barlow lens can double the magnification of an eyepiece — see my article on using Barlow lenses

Tube

Make sure you get a good quality OTA (Optical Tube Assembly), i.e., the tube containing all the optical components of the telescope.

Telescope Mount

The mount supports the mass of the telescope and so a quality mount is important. It will reduce the amount of manual tweaking you’ll need to do to keep a firm base.

Mounts are usually alt-azimuth (Alt-Az) or German equatorial (EQ).

An equatorial mount uses either the north or the south celestial pole as a point of reference for alignment. They provide for movement in east-west and north-south arcs.

The alt-azimuth mount types involve centering the eyepiece on an ‘alignment object’. This type of mount provides for altitude (up and down) and azimuth (side to side) movements.  

GoTo Telescopes

GoTo types automate finding planets.

They have motorized mounts, either equatorial (EQ) or alt-azimuth.

They automatically go-to the celestial location of the object using coordinate data entered in the inbuilt computer.

Because GoTos are computerized, they’re generally more expensive than manual types.

Portability & Storage

Before making a purchase ask yourself where you plan to store the telescope when not in use. If you live in a small apartment, for example, you may need to limit your purchase or seek storage offsite.

Ask yourself where will you be using the telescope. Do you intend traveling with your telescope?

In both cases, it might make sense to look for a more compact telescope or a fairly rugged unit. Refractors, for example, generally weigh less than reflectors and are not as bulky.

I wrote about the advantages and disavantages of each in my article on refractors vs reflectors.


Telescope Reviews: Popular Units for Viewing Planets 2020

Although Dobsonians are not included below, they are worth considering if you are looking for something less expensive — check out my article on what’s good about Dobsonian telescopes.

Celestron NexStar 127SLT Mak Review

Celestron is a Californian company that has been in the optics industry for decades.  

Click image to see price at Amazon

A Catadioptric (Maksutov-Cassegrain)
Aperture size: 127 mm (5″)
Mount: Motorized Alt-Azimuth
FL (Telescope focal length): 1500 mm (59 in)
f/ (Focal ratio): 12
Eyepiece FL: 25 mm (0.98″)/9 mm (0.35″); – magnification: 60×/167×
Highest/lowest useful magnification: 300×/18×; limiting stellar magnitude: 13

This computerized (Go-To) telescope has a corded hand controller and is attached to a motorized alt-azimuth mount that sits on top of the tripod. The SLT stands for ‘star locating telescope’.

The advantage of an alt-azimuth motorized mount means it can find the point from the entered object’s altitude and azimuth and quickly gather the sights for you automatically, so you don’t waste time hunting for them or having to manually align the telescope.

A Maksutov-Cassegrain (Mak) of this size, 127 mm (5″), makes it suitable for planetary viewing.

With this particular scope, you should see rings on Saturn, the bands on Jupiter, and the Great Red Spot on a clear night with sharp enough focus. You should see the reddish hue of Mars clearly.

The advantage of Maks is that they don’t require collimation (alignment of the optical elements). They are fairly rugged for transporting.

A focal ratio of 12 indicates it is in the high power range for narrower field viewing, suited to viewing planets, binary stars, and small features of the moon.

Adding in an eyepiece with a 6 mm focal length will give you a magnification of 250×, which should help you gain nice views of Saturn on a good clear night. Scroll down for a recommended add-on filter and eyepiece kit. 

What is included: Telescope, tripod, control keypad, and two Celestron eyepieces: 9 and 25 mm. Extras included: Finderscope – StarPointer; Star diagonal 1.25; Includes “The SkyX” Planetarium software.

Pros

  • Ticks all the boxes, with high focal ratio and a good size aperture
  • No collimation
  • Fairly rugged

Cons: 

  • Watch for aberrations
  • Maks not recommended for deep-sky objects
  • Not best for astrophotography.

Price

Price is good (for telescopes that can see planets). You can get this go-to telescope at Amazon — See details.

Recommended Addons

Car Battery adapter

Buy an adapter that will let you power this scope from the cigarette lighter of your vehicle. An example is the Celestron car battery adapter that is compatible with Nexstar telescopes.

Car battery adapter for when you are on the go. Click image to see details at Amazon.com

Extra eyepieces For Enhanced Views

Get extra telescope eyepieces for viewing planets.

A set of eyepieces plus filters will suit the beginner. Click image to see price at Amazon.

With the Nexstar 127 mm instrument, a 6 mm piece is recommended. An eyepiece + filter kit, like the Celestron 14-pc telescope accessory set, has one this size, which will improve the telescope’s views of planets. The kit has 5 Plossl eyepieces (6, 8, 13, 17, & 32 mm), 2× 1¼” Barlow lens, 6 colored planetary eyepiece filters, a 1¼” moon filter, and a case. A huge saving for beginners.

But, if you’d rather invest in decent individual eyepieces, have a look at this article I wrote, covering some quality extra eyepieces.


Celestron NexStar 6 SE Review

Available at Amazon — Click image to check out price.

A Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
Aperture size: 150 mm (6″)
Mount: Alt-Azimuth
FL (Focal length): 1500 mm (59″)
f (Focal ratio): 10
Eyepiece FL: 25 mm (1″); Eyepiece magnification: 60×
Highest/lowest useful magnification: 354×/21×; limiting stellar magnitude: 13.4

This planet viewing telescope is another automated type. It has a GoTo mount and a database of over 40 thousand night sky objects on which to automatically focus.

Simply use the built-in menu on the hand controller to select the celestial object and the telescope will automatically move and point to that object.

Being a Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT), it shouldn’t suffer color aberration. Also, the SCTs are a jack of all trades.

The telescope comes with a sturdy steel tripod.

The optics are superb. The aperture of 6″ (150 mm) is larger than the previous NexStar 127SLT Mak and is expected to give impressive views of the planets in detail.

With this particular scope, you should see faint objects to magnitude 13.4.

A focal ratio of 10 indicates it is a slow telescope in the high power range for narrower field viewing, meaning it is best for observing planets, binary stars, and small features of the moon.

Expect to see spectacular views of Saturn through telescope use with this one, as well as Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. You may even be able to see the outer planets, Uranus and Neptune at a dark site and under optimum viewing conditions.

An eyepiece with a 5 mm focal length would be the best eyepiece for viewing planets for this one, giving a magnification of 300× (50 × 6″).

Extras included: Sturdy steel tripod, finder scope – StarPointer; SkyAlign allows you to align on any three bright celestial objects, making for a fast and easy alignment process; Nearly 40,000 object database with 200 user-definable objects and expanded information on over 200 objects.

Pros: 

  • Only one eyepiece included (magnification 60×)
  • Skyalign works well with auto 2-star alignment

Cons: 

  • Relatively short battery life of the 8 AAs used in the mount
  • The mount being an alt-azimuth is not the best for photographing the planets, but you may succeed in capturing Venus, Jupiter, and a few others, with a very high ISO  

Price

Get the latest price of this go-to telescope at Amazon — See details.


Sky-Watcher ProED 120mm Doublet APO

Click image to check out latest price at Amazon

APO Refractor with ED Schott glass
Aperture size: 120 mm (4.72″)
Mount: Not included
FL (Focal length): 900 mm (35″)
f/ (Focal ratio): 7.9
Eyepiece FL: 20 mm (0.8″)/5 mm (0.2″); magnification: 45×/180×
Highest/lowest useful magnification: 283×/17×; limiting stellar magnitude: 12.9

In contrast to the previous two, this refractor telescope is basic in that it is an optical tube — it does not come with a computerized mount (or any mount) or tripod — but you can buy these separately. It comes with attachment hardware for this reason. 

With this particular scope, you should see faint stars to a 12.9 magnitude.

A focal ratio of 8 means it is at the lower end of the high power range for narrower field viewing of planets, binary stars, and small features of the moon.

The maximum magnification of around 283×, based on the size of the aperture and telescope focal length, should allow you to obtain nice views of Saturn’s rings and of Jupiter with the right eyepieces.

The eyepieces included will give you 45x and 180x, but you might need higher magnification, say ~200x to 240x, with really clear atmospheric conditions, for this. See my article on the best dark sky locations.

Other: Finderscope – 8×50 RA erect-image, Dual-speed 2″ Crayford-type focuser with 1.25″ adaptor; 20 mm and 5 mm 1.25, 2″ dielectric diagonal; Tube-ring attachment hardware; Aluminium carry case.

Pros:

  • Schott Glass, an FPL-53 ED glass element
  • Apochromatic ED doublet optics mean superb images — free of the annoying halo of unfocused violet light

Cons:

  • The tube is relatively long for free hold
  • You will need to add a mount and tripod (see below for a tripod with a computerized mount that you can add)

Price

More expensive than the previous two good telescopes for viewing planets. Get the latest price of this telescope at Amazon — See details.

Recommended Addons

If you are looking for a tripod for this scope, here are a couple of options…

Tripod with equatorial mount

A Celestron CG-4 German Equatorial Mount and adjustable height steel tripod will suit and easily maneuver this telescope to find the planets for viewing.

Available at Amazon.com – click image for details.

Tripod with programmable mount

A computerized mount and tripod will automate finding planets to view, like this Celestron Advanced VX Mount with Celestron Polar Axis Finder.

Available at Amazon.com – click image for details.

Celestron NexStar 8 Inch Telescope Review

Click image for price at Amazon.com

Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
Aperture size: 203 mm (8″)
Mount: Single Fork Arm Alt-Azimuth
FL (Focal length): 2032 mm (80″)
f (Focal ratio): 10
Eyepiece FL: 25 mm (1″); Eyepiece magnification: 81×
Highest/lowest useful magnification: 480×/29×; limiting stellar magnitude: 14

Another SCT, this 8-inch is in the league of the best telescope for viewing planets and galaxies. It is another fully automated type.

Like the 6-inch version, it has a GoTo mount and a database of over 40 thousand night sky objects on which to automatically focus. 

Simply use the built-in menu on the hand controller to select the celestial object and the telescope will automatically move and point to that object. 

The telescope comes with a sturdy steel tripod.

The optics are superb. The aperture of 8″ (203 mm) is larger than the previous Celestron NexStar SE and is expected to give views of deep-sky objects like the Whirlpool Galaxy and Hercules Globular Cluster.

A focal ratio of 10 means this is a slow telescope. It is in the high power range for narrower field viewing, suited for observing planets, binary stars, and small features of the moon.

Expect to see spectacular views of Saturn, as well as Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter and even see the outer planets, Uranus and Neptune at a dark site and under optimum viewing conditions.

Consider buying extra eyepieces to broaden your experience. The highest useful magnification is stated as 480×. An eyepiece with a focal length of 10 or 8 mm should do the trick to give you about 200x or 250x (2030 divided by 10 or 8). 

Other: Sturdy steel tripod, Finderscope – StarPointer; SkyAlign allows you to align on any three bright celestial objects, making for a fast and easy alignment process; Nearly 40,000 object database with 200 user-definable objects and expanded information on over 200 objects.

Pros: 

  • Large aperture
  • High useful magnification
  • 2-year warranty
  • Includes a finder scope

Cons:

  • Fairly short battery life of the 8 AAs used in the mount
  • The mount being an alt-azimuth is not the best for photographing the planets, but you may succeed in capturing Venus, Jupiter, and a few others, with a very high ISO

Price

Get the latest price for this go-to telescope at Amazon — See details.


How to See Planets With A Telescope

best planet telescope
Planets in order from Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

9 questions to ask yourself if you are not getting the best view of the planets through your telescope…

  1. Are you looking at a planet that has little to no detail?
  2. Are you using the appropriate magnification?
  3. What are the atmospheric conditions (bad turbulence?)
  4. Is the planet just too low on the horizon?
  5. Do the optics need collimation?
  6. Are heat sources interfering, e.g. rooftops or air conditioning vents?
  7. Are you indoors looking through a window?
  8. Has the telescope adjusted to the surrounding air temperature?
  9. What’s the quality of your optics?

A location that’s dark, dry, and possibly elevated will give you the best experience. See my article on some of the best places to stargaze, which has a link to a tool showing designation dark sky sites.

But, planets are bright enough to view with the typical suburban light pollution.

No matter what telescopes you use, you will get the best views of planets when they are closest to Earth. When a planet rises at sunset, it is in a position for the best views a few hours after sunset.

Mars will be seen better when it is close to Earth. For Mars, find and study some Martian maps.

Filters

Filters will improve what you can see. Red/orange filters should help you view the polar caps and major landmarks like Syrtis Major and Hellas on Mars. This will depend on what side of Mars is facing the Earth.

Getting hold of a good selection of color filters and having an understanding of the landmarks will also help. As will having the best eyepieces for viewing planets.

Eyepieces

The best outdoor gift to yourself is to get some extra eyepieces. Which are the best eyepieces for viewing planets? I cover the features and metrics to consider in my article of what to look for in telescope eyepieces.

Collimation

If you are using high magnification for planet viewing, optics being out of alignment will affect the telescope’s performance.

Are all optical elements aligned on the same axis?

If not, you might need to collimate your scope. This is especially important for Newtonian reflectors and more so with short focal ratios (< f/6).

This applies less to refracting telescopes – see my article on refractors vs reflectors to find out more.

This is about aligning the optics. In some, it is simply a three-step process.

  1. Align the main mirror roughly
  2. Position the secondary mirror
  3. Fine-tune the alignment of the main mirror 

Still, check the specifics for your individual telescope which are often on the website.

Refracting telescopes and Maksutov Cassegrains rarely need collimation. Schmidt Cassegrains sometimes need it but the long focal ratios of these scopes mean that small collimation errors are less noticeable. Though, I have a step by step article on collimating an SCT that you should check out.


What Planets Can You See With A Telescope?

Are you thinking: what planets can you see from Earth? You should know that all seven planets in our solar system (not including Earth) are visible from Earth.

Scientists regard Pluto as a dwarf planet.

So, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are visible to the naked eye – as bright stars mostly – while detecting Uranus and Neptune require you to at least use a set of binoculars. 

Using a telescope for viewing planets will give you more detail and a clearer view of the planets.

What to Expect to See with a Good Planetary Telescope

With Mars, you will see its polar caps and major dark surface features.

With Jupiter, the color and detail and the Great Red Spot can be seen.

With Saturn, its six moons are faintly observable at varying times.

The moons of the distant planets, Uranus and Neptune, are more challenging to find but are observable once located and with higher aperture size.

With an 8 inch aperture or higher, you should see better details, such as Neptune’s moon, Triton, and Jupiter in more detail, seeing its clouds and belts. The impressive ring around Saturn should be more defined. Pluto may be visible as a faint star.

Without Binoculars or Telescope To View Planets

Venus (AKA the evening star) is the brightest of the planets visible from Earth. The declining order of apparent brightness for the remaining planets is Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and lastly, Neptune.

Uranus and Neptune are the faintest planets seen from Earth. They require at least a good quality set of binoculars on the brightest clear night, to observe. I wrote about the best options for stargazing binoculars. You should also check out my article on ways binoculars complement the use of telescopes.

The brightest and nearest planets to Earth can be seen with the naked eye. You can see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (in order of distance from the Sun) as celestial bodies in the night sky.

Timeanddate.com has this great tool for when to expect so see the best views of the planets in your locality.

Of these visible planets, the increasing order of size is Mercury, Mars, Venus, Saturn, to Jupiter, the largest in the solar system.

Magnifications to Observe Features of Planets

To see rings of Saturn: You need fairly high magnification, say of 200x to 250x to get nice views on a good clear night.

ObjectMagnificationSuggested
Rings of SaturnHigh magnification200-250x
JupiterMid-high magnification< 200x
MarsMax magnification
MoonMax magnification

For Jupiter: Use mid-high magnification, say 200x (rarely more), given it is a very low contrast object and extra magnification will come at a cost of reducing contrast. 

For Mars: Use the highest magnification you can given the conditions and the limits of the telescope. It’s a small object and contrast is not an issue so you can go full throttle.

For the Moon: Same as for Mars.

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Jeff Madden

Hi, Jeff Madden here. I'm an enthusiast of the wide-open spaces with over 15 years of experience in using spatial data. My work here is about helping others with outdoor technology.

3 thoughts on “How To See Details Of Planets With A Telescope

  1. Hi, thanks for the awesome info!! I’ve been reading about telescope pros and cons would you mind giving me an advise about Meade LX70 M6 6″ f/12 Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope with German Equatorial Mount and 2-Stage Adjustable Steel Tripod, 1800mm Focal Length? I quite like this scope, would you be able to tell me the complete guide and eye pieces to get to use the scope to its maximum potential… much appreciated and thank you very much.

    Robbie

    1. Hi Robbie, Thanks for your query. Meade discontinued the entire LX70 range over a year ago. So, I assume that you own a Meade LX70, rather than looking to buy one. I can’t give you exact guidance but rather refer you to the Meade LX70 manual that is fairly comprehensive – here is the link, where you can download the manual from Meade. You’ll find a section on choosing eyepieces on page 11.
      If you are not happy with the eyepieces that came with the telescope…I can’t say for sure, but some users have found 1.25″ 15mm and 20mm eyepieces that give a 68 degree apparent field of view work perfect for this telescope — Much wider FOV being a waste. If you are looking for a fairly inexpensive additional eyepiece, the GSO Superview line is available at Amazon.com – See details. Cheers

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