Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter. How to Observe Them and Where to Look.

Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter.  How to Observe Them and Where to Look.

The most visible planets in our solar system are a joy to behold.  Here's the best equipment and ways to watch our good-neighbours in the sky.

Jupiter NASA


Most of us can recognize the difference between a planet and a star.  Sometimes it's because of it's occurrence on the horizon in the western sky like Venus, or its magnitude just seems to be extraordinarily bright relative to the others stars in the night sky, or within the recognizable stars of common constellations.


It's reassuring to be able to look up and instinctively know Venus from Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  It's amazing when we find them and see the rings of Saturn, the bands on Jupiter, the orange and red bloom of Mars, or the yellow haze of Venus. 

Equipment You’ll Need

Your best bet for appreciating the unique characteristics of these 4 planets is a reflector with at least a 3-inch (approximately 75mm)  mirror up to 6-inches (approximately 150mm),  or a refractor with at least a 2.5 inch (63mm) aperture, but a 4-inch (approximately100mm) would provide very good detail.  Typically, reflectors cost less than refractors if you're just now in the market for a scope. If you are looking for a bargain, have a look at the used telescope section of the site, or like the Facebook page Astronomy Telescopes For Sale to receive the latest auctions direct to your Facebook feed.

Mars Hubble


How to Find The Planets

The critical question is determining where and when to look.  The planets in our solar system vary, and while usually there is always one in evidence, you have to know where to look, and when its orbit presents the best viewing opportunity.  Not surprisingly, the times often occur deep into the night or very early morning before dusk.  That's the astronomer's lot in life.


The best way to plan your planetary viewing is with either a chart, a list or an app.  A good guide to when and where to look in 2014 can make your celestial planning a bit easier. 

Making Observing the Planets Easier

A critical consideration when viewing our local planets in our solar system is a motor-drive on our scopes.  With the exception of the North Star (Polaris), the night sky moves with the rotation of the Earth.  Anyone who has ever viewed the moon with high magnification can see the effect of this rotation.  While we can usually compensate manually for the rotation of the moon and the orbit of the moon, it requires much time and attention.  The same is true for local planets in our solar system.

Saturn by NASA


If Venus is moving 180° away from Earth while the Earth rotates, our viewing time will be both limited and potentially frustrating.  Orbits vary and sometimes we get lucky, but most times the orbits of our sister planets are in contrarian directions.   Yes, you can find and track our closest planets with manual controls, but if you are moving towards higher magnification you might want to consider a motor drive.


What You Could See

The ultimate value of viewing our local solar system is the dramatic and dynamic images we can share with our family and friends.   The first time we actually view the rings of Saturn or see the bands defining Jupiter takes us closer to a great appreciation of the night sky.   Stars are points of light and galaxies are often a fuzzy blur to many.  Our local planets give us the opportunity to wonder and appreciate.  Maybe that's why so many of us watch the skies.   

Jupiter taken with an iphone

You can take a picture of Jupiter with your iphone like the one above using the technique in the link. The planets are joy to behold in the eyepiece but taking pictures of them can be so rewarding too. Have fun.

Find more on: Observing the Night Sky

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