With simply a small telescope, and sometimes just a good pair of binoculars or even the naked eye, it’s possible to view some of the planets that shine in the night sky.
Mercury and Venus, known as inferior planets, orbit closer to the sun than Earth. Although Mercury shines brighter than most other celestial bodies, because it never manifests farther than 28 degrees from the sun, it’s very difficult to locate. Venus, on the other hand, has a much larger orbit than little Mercury, and is visible with the naked eye most of the year.
The remaining planets: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, known as superior planets, are visible using a telescope. The time when these planets lie on the far side of the sun as seen from Earth is called conjunction. The planets will move into the morning sky, climbing increasingly higher. Ultimately, the planet arrives at the point in its orbit where it lies opposite the sun in Earth’s sky; this configuration is known as opposition. The superior planets are most visible to us at opposition, and they will remain visible all night long.
Simply locating the planets can be exciting enough for novice astronomers, but with a modest telescope, specific characteristics can be identified on the planets that lie closer to Earth. Mars, the nearest superior planet, offers the most detail. Larger Jupiter displays a series of bright zones and dark belts. Swirling eddies and Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot are also visible at opposition.
Saturn’s unique and intriguing rings can be seen using a small scope. It will take a larger scope to view the details of Saturn’s rings, but backyard observers will be able to locate the planet’s moons with a small telescope.
Uranus and Neptune can be located with a small scope, and Uranus can even be seen with the naked eye if viewed from a very dark location away from city lights. Details of both will be very limited.
Embattled Pluto will offer no detail with a small scope. In fact, you’ll require an 8-inch scope and a detailed star chart simply to locate it, but it’s an exciting find for budding backyard astronomers.