If you’re new to telescopes, you may be surprised to find out that there isn’t any one telescope that can do it all.
For getting the best view on planets with a telescope, you’ll need to find one that has the right specs to get the job done and done well.
What specs should a planetary telescope have?
What accessories are needed to see planets better?
As you read through this guide, you’ll learn the key components needed to identify a planetary telescope and determine if all other features and specifications are right for you.
Best Telescopes for Planetary Viewing
Seeing planets shouldn’t be hard to do, right?
You can see some of the planets with the naked eye as they appear to be bright stars in the sky, so it should be even easier to see them through a telescope.
This is the main thought of many amateurs new to the astronomy hobby. While there’s nothing wrong with this thought, it comes down to a telescope’s capabilities and limitations. Think of it this way…
Saturn is favorite planet to observe with its majestic rings, but it’s also 750 million miles away when it’s at its closest distance to Earth. Saturn has no light of its own, so what you can see depends on light from the sun reflecting off the planet and its rings. It takes 80 minutes for that light to reach Earth.
Considering distance and light speed, it’s a tall order for an optical instrument to provide good seeing on an object with these conditions. Then, you’re fighting our own forms of seeing conditions from atmospheric turbulence, local light pollution, and the quality of your telescope and accessories. You ought to have a lot of respect for a telescope that can provide grand views of any planet.
Fortunately, there are telescopes that can deliver the type of performance you need. You may need some telescope experience, or you may have to spend a little more than you thought you would. Here is a shortlist of scopes that you must consider.
The Best Telescopes for Viewing Planets In 2020 Reviews
1. SkyWatcher SkyMax 127
Before you get too excited about the seemingly low price, you should know that the SkyMax 127 telescope is a tube-only buy. This is what I call a standalone buy as you must purchase the mount and accessories separately. If you can approve the budget needed to get this scope up and going, you won’t be disappointed with your planetary views.
Pros & Cons
✔️ For planetary observation
❌ Narrow field of view
The SkyMax telescope has a Maksutov-Cassegrain optical design. As such, they generally come smaller in aperture size with a compact tube and lighter weight than Newtonians. You will also have excellent optical performance with little to no chromatic aberration, good control of spherical aberration, and no spider vanes causing diffraction spikes.
Even though the telescopes comes in at 15” long, the focal length is really 1540 mm. When we take into account its 5” aperture, we have a nice and slow focal ratio of f/12 that is great for seeing planetary details at much higher and useful magnification.
While f/12 is great for zooming in on the planets, it’s not so great for seeking out larger DSOs because of the narrow field of view. With the right eyepieces, you can obtain a slightly wider field, but it will most likely be small planetary nebulae that you’ll be able to fit within the field of view.
Considering that standalone refractors can cost ten times as much as the SkyMax, this Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope looks to be a pretty good buy. This should be an upgrade for someone who has had some telescope experience.
2. Celestron NexStar Evolution 8
The NexStar Evolution 8 is not to be confused with the NexStar 8SE. While they have identical OTAs, the differences are in the tech upgrades. If you’re tech savvy and are looking for convenience features to enhance your planetary observation or imaging sessions, the Evolution 8 may be the no-brainer buy.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Tech upgrades
The Evolution 8 model is significantly more expensive than the 8SE. What does it buy you? You get a higher functioning mount with upgraded worm gears, built-in WiFi, and a built-in rechargeable battery.
You can also ditch the included hand controller and command your scope via your smartphone. True convenience if you don’t mind using up your smartphone’s battery. By the way, you can plug it into the mount and give it a top-up.
Like the 8SE, it has an 8” aperture with an f/10 focal ratio. It’s suited to planetary observation with its higher magnification capacity with good seeing, and it also provides better resolution due to its large aperture. StarBright XLT coatings help to improve light transmission and anti-reflective qualities.
The NexStar Evolution 8 has a lot going for it, and it’s just the right kind of upgrade an intermediate or advanced user needs. With the portability benefits of an SCT, an aperture to see faint DSOs with more resolution, and a slow focal ratio to see planetary features at a larger scale with good visibility makes the Evolution 8 a winner in my eyes.
3. Celestron NexStar 8SE
This NexStar telescope is part of the SE series and sports a nice 8” aperture. As a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, it naturally has a long focal length and slow focal ratio well-suited to seeking out planetary features.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 8” aperture
✔️ StarBright XLT coatings
❌ Light-duty mount for astro-imaging
The NexStar 8SE is a great all-purpose telescope for a number of reasons from its large 8” aperture to its medium-fast f/10 focal ratio – good for seeing planets and better resolution on DSOs.
Since it’s an SCT, it’s naturally lightweight and ready for travel. No one component of the telescope system weighs over 15 lbs. It can be taken to a dark location to make the most of all its optical benefits.
The SCT tube is mounted atop a computerized alt-azimuth mount. With GoTo, you’ll be able to locate objects with ease and keep it within your field of view. For imaging, you will struggle to obtain excellent stability since the payload capacity is very light, and since the tube weighs 12 lbs, you’ll be testing the mount and tripod’s rigor with imaging equipment loaded on top.
For visual use, the NexStar is a high-performer. It’s one of those good, general-purpose telescopes that can see DSOs with a restricted field of view, but it’s great for seeing more on planets.
4. Celestron CPC 925 XLT
The CPC 925 XLT is a high-quality telescope, so it’s expected that it will have a price tag to match. Fortunately, you get the entire package complete with a GoTo mount and accessories.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 9.25” aperture
The CPC 925 is an SCT with StarBright XLT coatings to help improve optical performance. The 925 stands for 9.25” of aperture which is plenty to explore thousands of star clusters and as many galaxies and nebulae that you can find. Finding them should be easy since you have a computerized, dual fork-arm mount that does all the hard work in locating objects.
Obviously, the aperture is plenty to see the bright planets with, and you’ll be able to take advantage of higher magnification to get a close-up peek of their features. The focal ratio is f/10, so it does provide good performance and you may be able to sneak in a high-quality Barlow lens to get a better picture for imaging.
The CPC offers multiple uses if you decide to set your sights further into deep space or closer towards land-based targets. As a great general-purpose telescope, it’s worth the buy if you’re an experienced observer looking for an upgrade.
5. Explore Scientific CF ED 102 APO
This Explore Scientific (ES) telescope will be an overkill buy just to view planets with, and it’s not the best for viewing planets in its as-is state. So, why consider it? For those who may already have the high-end refractor or those who will be mainly imaging with it, it can work for planetary observation.
Pros & Cons
✔️ APO + ED glass
✔️ Carbon fiber tube
✔️ For advanced users
The ES telescope is not a cheap buy. The tube by itself is very expensive, and it doesn’t come with any accessories or mount. To make the most of its optical system for imaging, you’ll need a GoTo mount which will help when using high magnification to home in on the Giant Red Spot or the rings of Saturn.
It has a medium-fast focal ratio of f/7, so the field of view will be wider and not so good for zooming in on planets. But, as-is and with what you can see, you’ll have excellent visual clarity, sharpness, and contrast thanks to its ED glass and APO triplet optical assembly. This is high-end quality in a refractor.
To help get better views on the planets, a Barlow lens will need to be incorporated to increase power and extend the focal length. It must be a high-quality lens with quality coatings to prevent light loss, must not introduce optical aberrations, and must not vignette the view.
Part of the price jump is due to the carbon fiber tube that has weight reduction and temperature stability benefits. With all these quality features, it’s absolutely suited to astrophotography. As you can tell, it’s not a scope for an amateur. This is intended for advanced users that want a high-quality imaging telescope and can put that to use on planets.
What to Look for in a Telescope for Viewing Planets
How do telescopes for seeing planets differ from telescopes for seeing deep-sky objects? Choosing a telescope for seeing planets will influence what type of telescope you should buy to the accessories you purchase separately. Let’s explore this further.
Aperture VS Optical Quality by Type
The larger the aperture, the more brightness you can achieve as the scope gathers more light. However, planets in general are very bright objects, so aperture should be considered but isn’t always the most important feature to look for.
What you do need to look for is optical quality. Even though the aperture is smaller, you want to be able to see more of the planet within the field of view. You must look to various optical components to determine if you’ll have good resolution, contrast, clarity, and color fidelity within that field of view.
A refractor telescope may have a small aperture, but if they have ED or APO glass systems, they’re more likely to show planets with greater clarity and sharpness with good control over chromatic aberration. However, they tend to be very expensive and can be difficult to move around especially if you have imaging gear that needs to go along for the ride as well.
Newtonians tend to be fast telescopes with wide fields of view, and when you want to observe more on a planet, you need to eliminate as much “black space” from the field of view as much as possible. While they offer larger apertures at good value, they can quickly become cumbersome to setup and travel with. This is somewhat due to larger size/weight and collimation maintenance/issues. Additionally, central obstruction can reduce contrast and cause diffraction spikes. However, Dobsonians in particular will work just fine for visual planetary observation.
Catadioptric telescopes would make great planetary telescopes as they have long focal lengths without the length of the tube. So, they can be compact and lightweight to travel with. The SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain) and Mak-Cass (Maksutov-Cassegrain) are affordable alternatives to refractors and can provide excellent optical quality like that of a refractor with reduced aberration effects. They’re also cheaper than high-end refractors and more portable. These types of telescopes will work well for both planetary imaging and visual use.
Yes, focal ratio matters – a lot! The slower a telescope is, the more suited it is to provide high-power viewing needed for planetary observation and imaging. The focal ratio (f/number) is determined by dividing the focal length by the aperture. For example, a telescope with a 2500 mm focal length divided by an aperture of 203 mm would result in a focal ratio of f/12.
The higher the f/number, the slower the optical speed and narrower the field of view. The lower the f/number, the faster the optical speed and wider the field of view. Imagers will pay attention to the f/number as it also determines how fast or long it will take to image an object and if and what additional accessories are needed to image successfully.
For visual purposes, you could use a medium-speed telescope and stack it with a Barlow lens to acquire a higher magnification and increase the focal length with a resulting narrower field of view. However, for planetary imaging, it’s best to seek out very slow and very long focal length telescopes to achieve a good image scale with maximum resolution.
You may or may not need these accessories for your setup, but they can prove useful if you need additional components to improve your planetary observation or imaging. This is not a comprehensive list, but it does provide some food for thought.
- Barlow Lens – Increases magnification and focal length. Can help to achieve focus for cameras on fast telescopes. Stacking Barlows on Newtonians may be expensive and too difficult to adapt. A 2x Barlow may be all you need for an SCT.
- Filters – Planetary filters can increase your observation satisfaction when viewing planets. Various colors can improve sharpness, contrast, and can enhance colors to reveal more details on lunar and planetary surfaces.
- Motor Drive – Having GoTo may prove to be extremely convenient for imagers. This type of setup is expensive and requires an equatorial mount, but it will keep the planet and/or planetary features within your field of view for taking photographs.
- Planetary Camera – These cameras are relatively inexpensive and are designed to be high-speed and short-exposure duration cameras. Attempt to capture as many frames as possible and use programs/software to stack the best frames to reveal the sharpest image.
- Slow-Motion Controls – You don’t have to have GoTo to keep an object within your field of view. Slow-motion controls allow for fine adjustments to the telescope’s alignment on the object. Having high magnification means it will move through the field of view faster than at low magnification. Having slow-motion controls will allow for easier tracking of the planet while you observe or image.
Tips for Viewing the Planets
Much can be said when it comes to viewing planets, but since we only have so much time, here are some basic tips to research on your own and practice.
Where you observe matters and sometimes it’s not within your control. When you’re having trouble focusing or seeing a planet, it may not be the telescope’s fault. Some things to consider when you’re looking to eliminate as many atmospheric interruptions as possible are:
- Avoid observing planets when they’re low in the sky. Try to observe when planets are at least 20-30 degrees above the horizon.
- Avoid observing in areas where there is a lot of concrete, over rooftops, and any other surface that absorbs heat during the day and releases at night.
- Seek out dark locations like hilltops or dark, open fields.
- Remember that some nights will just not allow good seeing. Atmospheric turbulence, smoke, light pollution, and air pollution scatter light and make it difficult to focus an image.
There are two forms of light pollution to consider: ground light and sky light. Ground light pollution interferes with your ability to adapt your eyes to dark seeing and ensuring they’re as sensitive as possible. Car, street, house, and building lights can all ruin the experience.
Tips to beat it? Refit your observation area with DIY methods to block out ground light pollution. Fences, walls, observing in an area where car lights don’t go past, etc. You can also wear a hoody around your head, use an eyepatch for your observing eye when not looking through the eyepiece, or unleash the kid in you with making a blanket fort around you and your telescope.
Sky light pollution interferes with your ability to see objects in the sky. Ever been on the outskirts of Las Vegas where you can locate where the city is based on its light pollution without actually seeing the city?
Tips to beat it? If you were to drive out to the country, you may see more stars than you knew were possible to see since rural areas have significantly less light pollution than the cities. The only effective way to beat sky light pollution is to get out to a dark location where there is less sky light pollution. There are filters that are made to address light pollution, but they’re not always effective. You can try them out and see if they work for your particular area.
Quick Guide to Planetary Visibility Expectations
Mercury is difficult to spot because it’s small, stays close to the sun, and moves quickly only leaving a few weeks at a time for visibility. If you can spot the pinkish planet, you can observe its small disk and its phases. Requires high magnification.
Venus is a terrestrial planet and does have a planetary surface, however you can’t see it because it’s covered in a highly-reflective shroud of clouds. It is not always visible, but when it is, it’s either in the morning and during its next rotation after passing around the sun, it will return as an “Evening Star.” It’s best to see Venus when it’s furthest away from the Sun. You can observe its phases, much like how our moon goes through phases. It may be helpful to use a moon filter to improve visibility of the planet’s disk.
It’s best to view Mars when it’s closest to the earth. This period is called opposition and happens every 26 months. Outside of this window, Mars will be small and difficult to make out planetary features. It’s an interesting planet to observe because you can actually see planetary surface details. It has dust storms, moons, polar caps, and Albedo markings.
Jupiter is a Gas Giant planet. Technically, there isn’t a planetary “surface” and what we can see through a telescope is its outer gaseous layer of clouds. These cloud bands present a very interesting striped pattern. Jupiter’s distance to the Earth is constantly changing, so good seeing on the giant planet will vary depending on where it is in its orbit in relation to Earth. Like Saturn, it follows the ecliptic path, so it will be visible in our night sky as it sets in the West.
It is not unusual to observe Jupiter’s moons eclipsing the planet or spotting a moon’s shadow as it crosses the planet. Even with low power of 30x or 70x, you can see the two prominent cloud bands. With more magnification, you may be able to see cloud band details such as festoons and shadings. And, yes, you can see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot as well!
When Saturn is visible from Earth, it’s relatively easy to find as it follows the path as the sun and moon called the ecliptic path. It’s best to see Saturn early in the morning or later in the evening due to local seeing factors. When Saturn is high in the sky, you’ll be seeing through less of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Sighting the planet and its rings can be done with 30x magnification, but often 100x and even 200x (depending on your scope) is used to observe more detail. The rings, ring division, cloud bands, and moons can be seen.
Uranus can be seen with a telescope. It may require a magnification of 100x to clearly identify the seemingly blue-white “star.” Unfortunately, no planetary details can be resolved due to its distance.
Neptune can be seen with a telescope. It will require high magnification, but you can easily identify it from stars as it has a distinctive blue color.
Can You Really See Planets with a Telescope?
Yes! Telescopes are designed to provide much higher magnification/power than human eyes and binoculars. While you can see planets with some high-powered binoculars, improved visibility can be achieved with telescopes.
What planets you can see and how much detail you can resolve will depend on many factors including telescope features, observing location, and other factors out of your control such as atmospheric and light pollution conditions.
Which Planets are Visible Through a Telescope?
All eight planets can be seen through a telescope. The real question is what can “your” telescope see? While Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Venus can be seen and with good detail through a telescope, Mercury, Uranus, and Neptune may remain elusive. Having enough magnification and optical quality to resolve and identify these planets will depend on the type of scope you have.
Which Type of Telescope is Best for Viewing Planets?
The best type of telescope for viewing planets will be a telescope with a long focal length and slow focal ratio. The larger aperture the better resolution you can achieve and the highest useful magnification for a larger image scale, but we know optical quality is first and foremost.
For viewing, a slow, good optical quality refractor and large aperture Newtonian with an acceptable/low amount of central obstruction will provide good planetary views.
For imaging, an SCT or Mak-Cass could provide stellar images. The SCT could be easier to work with accessories, and the Mak-Cass has less aberration issues. Catadioptric scopes may also perform better with cheaper eyepieces.
There is a lot to think about when you’re considering buying a telescope solely for planetary observation.
There’s the cost, size of the aperture, how fast or slow the telescope is, and then what the useful magnification will be to get quality seeing on the planet. Then, there’s the mount and type of accessories you’ll need to enhance your experience.
If you can understand what’s required, you can make the best decisions based on your needs. I tell ya though, it’s awe-inspiring and humbling to see these extraterrestrial bodies in all their glory.
Clear skies, friend!