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My Best Telescope For Viewing Planets Buyers’ Guide

With so many telescopes out there, it’s hard to know where to invest for that ‘perfect telescope’. If you’re looking for the best telescope for viewing planets, I’ve put together a quick reference as well as what to look for and reviews of some popular telescopes for viewing planets including the Go-To telescopes (automated types).

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

Who is this for? Anyone who is interested in checking out planetary details and being awe-inspired using an amateur astronomy telescope.

Why consider a telescope for viewing planets? Our solar system planets have interesting features that go beyond that seen on the moon or in viewing star constellations. It makes sense to have the right specs in a telescope to capture decent views to see details of planets as it is a step up from moon observations, giving you more to investigate in the night sky. Plus, if you have a telescope for viewing planets you also have one for observing the moon and constellations as well.

My top picks for planetary viewing

The following is a quick overview of 6 popular planet viewing telescopes, in order of cost, with links to the latest prices at Amazon. It includes Dobsonian telescopes, which are low cost and simple to use. For extra details of the more expensive telescopes skip to reviews further down.

best planet viewing telescopes chart

The above chart gives you an idea of what to expect to see through a telescope, in terms of its aperture size based on a reflector type telescope. For equivalent in a refractor telescope, a smaller size of aperture applies, see below (and as explained in our guide on reflector vs refractor).

Don’t expect to see views equal to the astrophotography captured by NASA, as in the beautiful images they distribute. Those are from very high powered telescopes and not the detail you are likely to see through a home telescope.

What’s the best telescope for viewing planets?

A ‘slow’ telescope is the best telescope for viewing planets. This means a telescope with a high focal ratio (f/). You also want a reasonably-sized aperture to get detailed views. In a reflecting telescope, this means at least 6″ primary mirror. Good optical quality is important for sharp images and a smooth moving mount with easy to use controls adds to the enjoyment. Other selling points to consider are portability, automation, and included extras.

  • If you don’t mind spending more, automated mounts help with tracking the planets as they move across the sky with the rotation of the Earth.
Features of a reflecting telescope explained in terms of what to look for to get the best telescope for planetary viewing

How do I know if my telescope is ‘slow’?

Telescopes with high focal ratios (f/) are slow telescopes and these are best for viewing planets. They have a narrow-field suited to planet observation. 

Medium to slow telescopes have focal ratios of about 8 (f/8) to 9 (f/9) and slow starts at 10. (Some references start at lower focal ratios and some higher for the slow category.) The following is the rating used in this guide.

  • Fast: f/4 to f/5
  • Medium: f/6 to f/9
  • Slow: f/10 to f/15

Fast telescopes are wide-field and so are best for deep space viewing. Medium telescopes (overlapping fast and slow) are the best telescopes for viewing planets and galaxies (and other deep space objects).

Calculate focal ratio (f/)

Here’s how you can tell if your telescope is ‘slow’. Calculate its focal ratio (f/):

f/ = Telescope Focal length ÷ Aperture

How much for a telescope to see planets?

The price of a telescope to see planets can vary depending on whether you prefer automation or manual controls and how serious an observer you are, meaning, which planets you’re interested in and the depth of planetary detail you’re wanting.

For those listed in this telescope buying guide, you are looking at between $200 and $2000. 

You’ll find cheaper telescopes in our article covering telescopes for beginners, which include small telescopes with simple alt-az mounts, but these are not necessarily the best telescopes for observing the features of a majority of planets in finer detail. Though you may be able to pick up the rings of Saturn and see others as discs.

What planets can I see through my telescope?

You can see all the planets of our solar system with a telescope. The planet details will depend on the telescope itself, the optics, your skill, and atmospheric conditions. You’ll see more through a telescope with quality-grade gear under optimal atmospheric conditions and as you increase your skill with practice.

Chart: What You Can expect to see with a telescope…

Specs in a telescope for planetary viewing

Aperture size

The aperture size is important but the average useful aperture size for viewing planets will differ with telescope type, e.g., reflector vs refractor, or Cassegrain.

What size telescope should I get to see all the planets in our solar system?

As a guide:

In general, the larger the aperture the more light will be captured by the primary mirror (or objective lens), and the brighter the distant planet will appear.

This means an 8″ reflector will potentially give you better views of the planets (keeping in mind that viewing the Moon, with that much light and increased brightness from a larger aperture will mean you’ll need to add a filter).

But, the thing to consider most is not only the size but also the portability of a large telescope and how it will affect your use and storage of such a product.

What magnification telescope do I need to see planets?

The magnification to see planets and their features can vary from 70x to 300x depending on the planet you want to observe, the night conditions, and the quality of the optics.

Read also: How best to observe Jupiter and its moons

Magnification is important, but there’s a maximum limit to its usefulness.

Going beyond this will give you distorted blurred views.

As a guide: It’s said to be somewhere within 50× per inch (or 2× per mm) of the aperture.

So, a 5″ aperture on a reflector would have a maximum useful magnification of 250× (50 x 5).

Keep in mind that with poor (turbulent) atmospheric conditions (in some cases, 9 out 10 nights), the maximum useful magnification will be even less – so try for 25x to 30x per inch of aperture unless you are in a pretty good location for stargazing.

So, the telescope with a 5″ aperture would have in effect a highest useful magnification of 125x to 150x.

Below is a rough guide for observing planets in detail. A lot of variables will affect this especially the viewing conditions and the optical quality.

Magnification to see rings of Saturn: 50x to 150x, with the higher power giving better details on a good clear night.

Magnification to view Jupiter: Mid-high magnification, say 100x–150x (rarely more than 200x), given it is a very low contrast object and extra magnification will come at a cost of reducing contrast. 

Magnification to view 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.

How to calculate telescope magnification

To calculate telescope magnification when using a given eyepiece, divide the telescope focal length (AKA objective focal length) by the eyepiece focal length. See our example…

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).

Optics

Look for good quality optical components of the telescope, including the primary objective and the focusing assembly.

Expect high quality from the better-known brands of telescope, such as Celestron, Orion, and SkyWatcher (see our comparison of these brands).

Telescope mount

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

Mounts include alt-azimuth (Alt-Az), equatorial fork, or German equatorial (EQ). You can find out what there is to know about telescope mounts in our articles explaining the pros and cons of different telescope mounts and mounting a telescope on a camera tripod.

In a nutshell…

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.  It is problematic for astrophotography.

Other things to consider in a telescope for planetary viewing

Automation – GoTo types

GoTo types automate finding planets and can track celestial objects, which is useful for astrophotography.

GoTos 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 mount 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 for a large telescope.

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 disadvantages of each in my article on refractors vs reflectors.

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. You might be interested in our article on the best eyepieces for eyeglass wearers.

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 our article on using Barlow lenses

Best planet viewing telescope reviews 2020

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 possibly 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×. 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.

Extra eyepieces For Enhanced Views

Get extra telescope eyepieces for viewing planets.

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 5 SE review

A Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
Aperture size: 125 mm (5″)
Mount: Alt-Azimuth
FL (Focal length): 1250 mm (49”)
f (Focal ratio): 10
Eyepiece FL: 25 mm plossl (1″); Eyepiece magnification: 50×
Highest useful magnification: 295×; limiting stellar magnitude: 13

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.

With this particular scope, you should see faint objects to magnitude 13.

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.

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 50×)
  • 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.

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.


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.

Dobsonian Telescopes

If you’re looking for info on the Dobsonians step over to our article covering their advantages and disadvantages. They make a good planet viewing telescope, especially if you are looking for something low-cost with simple mechanics and aren’t at the stage of astrophotography. Otherwise, check out this 6″ Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian telescope that’s available at Amazon.

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 our 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 to expect to see with a good planetary telescope

You should know that all seven planets in our solar system (not including Earth) are visible from Earth.

At the time of this writing, scientists have rated Pluto as a dwarf planet although the debate around its status continues.

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.

With Mars, look for its polar caps and major dark surface features.

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

With Saturn, 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 and sometimes the morning 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.

Info sources

Stack Exchange: Astronomy Q&A |Time & Date: Night Sky Map | NASA: Planets in our Solar System

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