With so many telescopes out there, it’s hard to know which one to buy that will give you what you want. Planets are among the things most budding astronomers want to see through a telescope. The following covers what to look for in a telescope to view planets and other night sky objects. It reviews some popular telescopes including the Go-To telescopes (automated types) for viewing planets.
Who is this for? Anyone interested in observing the planets through a telescope and getting good views of planetary features.
- It makes sense to have the right specs in a telescope to capture decent views of planetary features, for example, the bands of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, as it is a step up from moon observations. You have more exploring to do in the night sky.
- If you have a telescope for viewing planets you also have one for observing the Moon and the constellations as well.
Compare telescopes for planetary viewing
The following compares popular planet viewing telescopes, in order of cost. The Dobsonian will give you the best bang for the buck and it is also simple to use. For truly automated planetary viewing opt for Celestron’s CPC. If you’re a fan of refractors, consider the SkyWatcher APO. For a good GoTo that’s compact, look at Celestron’s 6SE.
Last update on 2021-04-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
What’s the best telescope for viewing planets?
The best telescope for planetary views is one with a reasonably-sized aperture; at least 6″ in a reflecting telescope or 3–5″ in a refractor. Good quality optics are a must for sharp images and a smooth moving mount with easy-to-use controls helps with observing the planet as it moves across the sky with Earth’s rotation.
- 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.
- An 8″ Dob is considered a classic beginner’s telescope. It’s a good affordable telescope for planet and galaxy viewing. It’s not a compact telescope, however.
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…and the ease of use – where you want convenience and less time spent fiddling the controls to locate and track the object.
For those listed in this telescope buying guide, you are looking at between $300 and $4000.
You’ll find cheaper telescopes in my 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, though you’ll need a fairly large aperture to see the dwarf planet, Pluto, and then only as a disc. What you see 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…
The following chart gives you an idea of what to expect to see through a telescope, based on the aperture size of a reflector telescope. For equivalent in a refractor telescope, a smaller size of aperture applies, see below (and as explained in my comparison of reflectors and refractors).
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 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.
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.
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.
Best telescope aperture size for planet viewing
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).
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 my comparison of these brands).
Often, the eyepieces that come with the quality telescope are not the best.
That’s why people often include extra eyepieces (and a Barlow lens) as accessories with the purchase. Look for good quality optics in these.
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). My article on choosing eyepieces will help you here.
Also, a Barlow lens can double the magnification of an eyepiece — see our article on using Barlow lenses.
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.
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 use and store the telescope when not in use. If you live in a small apartment, for example, you may not have enough room or may need offsite storage for a large telescope.
Ask yourself where will you be using the telescope. Do you intend to travel with your telescope?
A compact telescope suits travel and limited storage. Refractors, for example, generally weigh less than reflectors and SCTs are not as bulky.
The most popular telescopes are in the range 4–8″ and this is mostly for portability and storage reasons.
I wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of each in my article on refractors vs reflectors.
Best planet viewing telescope reviews 2021
8″ Dobsonian telescope
For the pros and cons of the Dobsonians step over to my article covering the Dobsonian advantages and disadvantages. The Dobs are a great planet viewing telescope, especially if you are looking for something low-cost with simple mechanics and aren’t at the stage of astrophotography.
Celestron NexStar 127SLT Mak review
Celestron is a Californian company that has been in the optics industry for decades.
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.
- Ticks all the boxes, with high focal ratio and a good size aperture
- No collimation
- Fairly rugged
- Watch for aberrations
- Maks not recommended for deep-sky objects
- Not best for astrophotography.
Price is good (for telescopes that can see planets). You can get this go-to telescope at Amazon — See details.
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 6 SE review
A Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
Aperture size: 150 mm (6″)
FL (Focal length): 1500 mm (59”)
f (Focal ratio): 10
Eyepiece FL: 25 mm Plossl (1″); Eyepiece magnification: 60×
Highest useful magnification: 354×; 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.
With this particular scope, you should see faint objects to magnitude 13.4.
Expect to see Saturn and its rings through this telescope, 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.
- Only one eyepiece included (magnification 60×)
- Skyalign works well with auto 2-star alignment
- 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
Get the latest price of this go-to telescope at Amazon — See details.
Sky-Watcher ProED 120mm Doublet APO
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.
- Schott Glass, an FPL-53 ED glass element
- Apochromatic ED doublet optics mean superb images — free of the annoying halo of unfocused violet light
- 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)
More expensive than the previous two good telescopes for viewing planets. Get the latest price of this telescope at Amazon — See details.
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.
A computerized mount and tripod will automate finding planets to view, like this Celestron Advanced VX Mount with Celestron Polar Axis Finder.
Celestron CPC 8″ Computerized Telescope
You’ll get full automation with this SCT. It’s one of the newest GoTo telescopes on the market and means you don’t need to do a steep learning curve to be out there stargazing and planet viewing.
It doesn’t require any set up with aligning the pole, no pointing north, no need to enter the date, time, or location. It has a global positioning system (GPS) in the mount that signals the computer where you are (within a few meters) and computes all that information you would normally enter.
- Item may ship in more than one box and may arrive separately
- 8 inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope
- 2032 millimeter focal length
- Aluminum optical tube construction
- Starbright XLT high performance optical system ; Convenient remote hand control holder - Allows you to view information hands-free while using the scope
- SkyAlign alignment technology ; 9x50 finderscope to help accurately find objects
Last update on 2021-04-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
How to get better views of the planets through a telescope
Nine questions to ask yourself if you are not getting the best view of the planets through your telescope…
- Are you looking at a planet that has little to no detail?
- Are you using the appropriate magnification?
- What are the atmospheric conditions (bad turbulence?)
- Is the planet just too low on the horizon?
- Do the optics need collimation?
- Are heat sources interfering, e.g. rooftops or air conditioning vents?
- Are you indoors looking through a window?
- Has the telescope adjusted to the surrounding air temperature?
- 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 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.
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.
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.
- Align the main mirror roughly
- Position the secondary mirror
- 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.
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. Seeing the planets through a telescope however adds a whole new dimension and having the right telescope will give you hours of enjoyment.