If you enjoy observing the planets in the night sky, then you’ll definitely want to check out these tips for maximizing your experience.
I’ve discovered the following on getting the most from planet-viewing since taking up the hobby. Only by practising will you appreciate and enjoy the advantage of such knowledge.
Tips for viewing planets with a telescope
For optimal planetary observation, here are six areas that can make that difference:
- Timing: when and where to observe
- Weather conditions for optimal viewing
- Proper telescope setup and calibration
- Patience and perseverance
- Identifying features and taking notes for future reference
- Avoiding common mistakes during planetary observation
1. Timing: when and where to observe
To observe planets…
Use astronomy apps or websites to find out when and where they will be visible.
Find a dark location away from city lights to reduce light pollution.
It’s also worth knowing the path of the planets across the sky.
Planets are constantly moving in their orbits, and their positions change quickly in your view.
A computerized telescope will automatically track the object across the sky.
With a manual one, you will need to persevere and continually adjust the position of your telescope to accommodate this movement.
2. Weather conditions
What can affect your experience:
Cloud cover: It goes without saying that clouds will obstruct your view, so the less cloud cover, the better.
Humidity levels: High humidity can mean haziness in the atmosphere, which will impair your view.
Temperature: Warmer temperatures tend to create more atmospheric disturbance and your view of the planets can be blurry or distorted.
Wind speed and direction: Strong winds can cause shaking in your telescope or binoculars, making it difficult to focus on planets.
Planets are best viewed when the sky is clear and free of light pollution. Wait for a night with minimal clouds and little to no moonlight. I wrote about the moon phases and seasons best for planet viewing.
3. Proper telescope setup and calibration
The best planet-viewing experience can means having…
- The right telescope: “There’s no such thing as a perfect telescope for everyone” writes Terence Dickinson, author of the practical guide Nightwatch (Amazon link). An aperture of at least 70mm in a refractor will give you the necessary light gathering for viewing details of planets. But there’s more to consider — see my article on the best telescopes for planet viewing
- Stable set up: Make sure the telescope is mounted securely on a stable tripod or base, and that it is level and pointed towards the intended target. I have an article with tips on making a flimsy tripod more stable.
- Eyepieces: For planet viewing, start with an eyepiece with a long focal length (between 10mm and 25mm) to provide a wide field of view and then if needed look at increasing magnification to see if you can get better details in the view. My article on getting the right eyepiece offers more info.
- Focusing the telescope: Before viewing planets, check your telescope’s alignment with your finderscope. You can do this by using a bright object as a reference point. This will ensure that your telescope is properly aligned and pointed accurately to avoid frustration in locating the planet in the telescope’s view. For more tips on focusing the telescope, see my article which covers 13 reasons you might be having problems.
Remember to also be patient and take your time to enjoy the beauty of the night sky.
4. Importance of patience and perseverance
To make the most of your observing session, take time to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness.
In adapting to the dark, your eyes become more sensitive to light and you’ll see fainter objects in the night sky.
This can take several minutes, depending on the brightness of the surrounding environment.
During this time, avoid using electronic devices or white lights. Instead, use a red flashlight for finding your way around in the dark.
Be patient with what you see when looking through a telescope. Planets may appear featureless at first, but with careful observation and dark adaptation of your eyes, you will begin to detect subtle details, such as the bands on Jupiter.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see everything at once. It takes practice to develop the skills needed to observe planets and other celestial objects through a telescope. Keep at it, and you may be rewarded with incredible views of the wonders of the universe.
Even with the best equipment and preparation, observing planets can still require patience and perseverance.
You may need to wait for the right weather conditions or wait for a planet to come into view. You may also need to spend some time adjusting your equipment to get the best view.
These observations can provide valuable insights into the nature of our solar system and help us better understand our place in the universe.
5. How to identify planetary features
To identify planetary features during observation through a telescope, there are a few things to follow:
- Observing the planet’s surface: Look for features such as hue, craters, mountains, or valleys that are known features.
- Observe the planet’s atmosphere. Look for any cloud bands or storms on the planet. These also help identify the planet you are looking at.
- Take notes. Write down any features you observe, as well as the date, time, and location of your observation. This will help you to keep track of your observations and compare them over time.
Get to know the different features of the planets beforehand. I include these in articles on each of these planets:
6. Common mistakes to avoid during planetary observation
Some common mistakes to avoid during planetary observation include:
- Observing in poor weather conditions, such as cloudy or hazy skies
- Using low-quality equipment or improperly maintained equipment
- Not allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness before observing
- Observing when the planet is too close to the horizon, which can distort the view
- Using too high a magnification for your telescope specifications. This is a common mistake
- Not properly identifying the planet you are observing
- Not taking the time to learn about the planet’s features and characteristics before observing