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.
- telescopes for planetary viewing
- What’s the best telescope for viewing planets?
- What you’d expect to pay for a telescope to see planets?
- planets You will see through a telescope
- Choosing your telescope for planets
- Best planet viewing telescope reviews 2021
- Still not sure? Here’s a Wizard…
- Final thoughts
- Info sources
- 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.
telescopes for planetary viewing
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. Read on for the details…
What’s the best telescope for viewing planets?
The best telescope for planetary views is one with a good-sized aperture — 6″ or more in a reflecting telescope; 3–5″ in a refractor — high quality optics, and a smooth-moving rock-steady mount.
What you’d expect to pay for a telescope to see planets?
The price of a telescope suitable for viewing planets can vary. It’ll depend on whether you prefer automation or manual controls, the depth of planetary detail you’re wanting…and the ease of use – where convenience and less time spent fiddling the controls to locate and track the object is your preference.
- 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. Though, it’s not compact.
For those I’ve listed in this telescope buying guide, you are looking at between $300 and $4000.
You’ll find cheaper telescopes in my article covering telescopes under 200, which include small telescopes with simple alt-az mounts.
Keep in mind that these cheaper types may give you a lot of frustration, for one reason, they come with flimsy tripods. They are not 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.
planets You will see through a telescope
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.
What planets can I see through my 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, as I explained in reflectors vs refractors.
One thing…Don’t expect to see views like those captured by NASA, which are amazingly beautiful images. Those are from very high powered telescopes and not the detail you are likely to see through a home telescope.
planets visible with a telescope good for planets
You can see all seven planets in our solar system from Earth with a telescope. Pluto also, with the right gear, can be seen. Though Pluto is a dwarf planet. It doesn’t have planet status (though the debate around its status continues).
Five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, are visible to the naked eye – as bright stars. For Uranus and Neptune, the faintest planets seen from Earth, you need at least a good set of binoculars on the brightest clear night.
Timing is important, and the Timeanddate.com tool is good for finding out what and when you can expect so see planets in your part of the sky.
Through a telescope, you’ll get to see certain features of the planets given the right viewing conditions.
Features of planets through a telescope to look for:
- Mars, polar caps and major dark surface features — see my write up on Mars through a telescope.
- Jupiter, the colored bands and it’s moons — see my write up on Jupiter through a telescope.
- Saturn, its rings and moons that are faintly seen at varying times — see my write up on Saturn through a telescope.
- Venus, the thick cloud that blankets it — see my write up on Venus through a telescope.
The moons of the distant planets, Uranus and Neptune, are more challenging to find, but you might see them with a higher aperture telescope.
For example, with an 8 inch aperture or higher, you might see Neptune’s moon, Triton, and Jupiter’s clouds and belts. The impressive ring around Saturn should be more defined. Pluto may be visible as a faint star.
Choosing your telescope for planets
The following is a guide indicating what to look for in the best telescope for planet viewing.
The most popular telescopes are in the range 4–8″.
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, and the target planet.
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. A good finderscope is also important for aligning the scope for views of the planet. I wrote about why some finderscopes are better than others in my article about finderscopes and upside down images.
This means an 8″ reflector might give you better views of the planets (though for Moon viewing you’ll need a filter given the added light and brightness captured).
Also, with a larger sized telescope, portability can affect your use as can having to store it somewhere — see my telescope storage ideas.
What magnification telescope do I need to see planets?
The magnification to see planets and their features can vary from 30x to 300x depending on the planet you want to observe, the night conditions, and the quality of the optics.
Maximum useful magnification
Magnification is important, but there’s a maximum limit to its usefulness. Going beyond this will give you distorted blurred views. As a guide max useful magnification is said to be somewhere within 50× per inch (or 2× per mm) of the aperture.
So, for a 5″ aperture on a reflector it’s 250× (50 x 5) on a good night, but could be between 150x to 125x, given your local viewing conditions.
With poor (turbulent) atmospheric conditions (in some cases, 9 out 10 nights), the maximum useful magnification might reduce to 25x to 30x per inch of aperture (unless you are in a good location for stargazing).
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.
You’ll see the rings of Saturn with any telescope with a magnification of 30x or more and the right atmospheric conditions but a 50x is recommended.
To view Jupiter, you’d rarely want 200x or more, given the planet is a very low contrast object and extra magnification will come at a cost of reducing this contrast.
For Mars try using 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 could 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 by the eyepiece focal length.
Here’s an example: A telescope with an FL of 800 mm with an eyepiece with an FL of 10 mm gives 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).
eyepieces & barlow lens
Sometimes, the eyepieces that come with the telescope are not enough to cover the magnifications you want or they may not be the best quality.
You’d probably want to buy 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 my 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.
Simplicity and functionality is what matters most with mounts, says Dickinson.4 You need a mount that moves smoothly yet stays put where and when you want it to.
The main type of mounts are alt-azimuth (Alt-Az) and equatorial (EQ). You can find out what there is to know about telescope mounts in my 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 allow 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. I wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of each in my article on refractors vs reflectors.
Best planet viewing telescope reviews 2021
In all of these, Dobsonians will give you the best bang for your buck.
8″ Dobsonian telescope
For more information on the Dobsonians, step over to my article covering the Dobsonian advantages and disadvantages. The Dobs are a great planet viewing telescope, for the price conscious and for the beginner. Especially, if you are looking for something low-cost with simple mechanics and aren’t at the stage of astrophotography, it’s a good choice.
Celestron NexStar 127SLT Mak review
Included in the NexStar 127SLT
available at Amazon
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 potentially 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 & where to buy
- Check out the latest price of 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.
Celestron NexStar 6 SE review
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
Price & where to buy
- Get the latest price of this go-to telescope at Amazon — See details.
- High Point Scientific has this NexStar 6SE as a bundle deal
Sky-Watcher ProED 120mm Doublet APO
The APO stands for apochromatic, which means expensive optics are used in this telescope. These optics reduce the residual color you get with other refractor telescopes. With these you get amazing sharp images. These refractors are premium instruments.
With this refractor telescope you’ll need to buy the mount/tripod separately — it comes with attachments for these.
With this particular scope, you should see faint stars to a 12.9 magnitude.
With the maximum magnification of around 283×, based on the size of the aperture and telescope focal length, you’ll get nice views of Saturn’s rings and of Jupiter with the right eyepieces.
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 telescopes for viewing planets.
- Get the latest price of this telescope at Amazon — See details.
- Also at High Point Scientific, you’ll find this Sky-Watcher AP0 120
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.
Where to buy
- High Point Scientific has this CPC 800 as a bundle deal
But if you prefer Amazon…
Celestron CPC 800 see it at Amazon
Still not sure? Here’s a Wizard…
Orion’s Product Wizard is a tool to help you select the best telescope or binocular to meet your personal needs
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.
If you’re still unclear, try out Orion’s wizard to take you through features to determine the best telescope for you.
- Stack Exchange: Astronomy Q&A |
- Time & Date: Night Sky Map |
- NASA: Planets in our Solar System
- Dickinson, Terence. 2019. NightWatch. A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly. New York.