Can I See Mars With A Telescope? [What You Should Expect]

If you are contemplating getting a telescope, then you are going to want to know what you can expect to see. What about Mars? Can you observe this planet through a telescope? Yes, you can see Mars with a telescope. However, Mars will not always appear the same and will look different at various times and moments throughout the year(s). While at some times, Mars can look small and faint at others it can appear large and with full visible clarity. Perhaps one of the best things that you can do if you are looking to observe Mars and the other planets, is to equip yourself accordingly. My best telescope for viewing planets and galaxies guide will help you do just that. However, in the meantime, let us explore the topic in further detail so you know what to expect. We’ll even include how you can use a telescope to view Mars!

Using A Telescope To See Mars

One of the first things to note is that, just like observing other planets, the relation of the earth and its relative position in the Solar System will make a lot of difference. For Mars, it is when it is most nearby that you are going to get the best views. Contrastingly, when it is most far away, the views you will get will not be as impressive. This is because, despite being the closest planet to us, Mars is routinely at a different distance to us here on Earth. This is all due to the orbit, which lasts approximately every two years. So within that 2 year time-frame the planet will be at different distances to us. Here are the approximate distances at each end of the cycle:
  • Closet – 35 million miles (56 million km) apart.
  • Farthest – 250 million miles (401 million km) apart.
When Mars is closest to us on Earth, the disc will appear as 25 arcseconds in diameter, whereas at its furthest distance the disc can appear at just over 3″ accross. The apparent magnitude will also change too; being as dim as +2.0, or as bright as -3.0. Consequently, it naturally follows that when you look at Mars will largely effect what you are able to see. It could either be small, subtle and relatively undetectable or appear to be a huge planet with plenty of elements to observe.

When Can You Observe Mars

2019 was a notoriously bad time for astronomers to observe Mars. Remember that 2 year cycle and orbit we mentioned earlier? Mars was at one of its most furthest distances during this year. Despite its relative distance, it was still observable, just not how you would want to be able to see it in all of its unique glory. Thankfully, in 2020, Mars is returning back into the spotlight for us here on Earth. It is predicted and forecasted that in August 2020, Mars will be appearing with a magnitude of -1.1 and 14″ wide through a telescope. This will be a great month to observe the infamous red planet. This trend will continue, whereby in October 2020, Mars will be nearing its closest distance here to us on Earth (at under 40 million miles away). So, if you are considering getting a telescope to observe Mars, 2020 will be one of the best times for it!

How To Find Mars Through A Telescope

While we have mentioned that there are better (and worse) times to observe Mars, the good news is that it can be observed through a telescope in some shape or form. For 2020, its a much better view. So, if you was to try and observe Mars in 2019 and didn’t get much luck, consider that you may have chosen an unfortunate time to try. There is one thing you need to consider before you attempt to view Mars; confirm that it is visible.

Mars will be best observed in the latter half of 2020.

Mars will travel in its path across the sky, moving through Gemini in the early summer, all the way through Cancer, Leo and Virgo. At the end of its path it will be positioned in Libra. In the Summer of 2020, Mars will actually be positioned too closely to the Sun for us to be able to get a decent view of it. This all changes by October, when it will be visible in the early morning sky (as it will rise 1 hour ahead of the Sun). From October through to the end of the year, your views will actually improve as Mars rises earlier and earlier relative to the Sun. To be able to accurately find where Mars will be positioned near you, there are two main options. The first, is that you can download a free software called Stellarium to your computer. This will enable you to see a realistic view of the sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. Alternatively, the Celestron Sky Maps you can get for a great price on Amazon is another excellent option. In fact, it is my recommendation as it glows, can be taken outside and is easier to use for beginners. Failing this, you can always opt for a telescope such as the NexStar 6 or NexStar 8SE which will automatically lock you on and move to the star/planet you tell it to go to.

Using Your Telescope To See Mars

As a fellow astronomer, one of my best tips ahead of any observation is to get set up properly and appropriately ahead of time. Align your finderscope and ensure that your eyepieces are attached and secured. If you are yet to purchase a telescope, then be sure to read our guide here which includes the best telescopes for viewing the planets and galaxies. If you are using a computerized scope, it will do all the heavy lifting for you. Otherwise, you may need to aim your finderscope directly at Mars (which you will need to find with the planetarium software/sky map).  Be sure to use an eyepiece with a wide field of view. With Mars, you can expect to see small discs. This is because it is a bright planet to observe. For this reason you can increase the magnification to get more clarity on the surface detail.

What To Look For On Mars

When it comes to your observations, another top tip is to consider using a colored filter. This will enable you to see greater depth and clarity in which you would otherwise not be able to observe. The Neewer filters are particularly effective, and this package is a great deal to get on Amazon. When you have your apparatus ready, and Mars is in prime position, here are some recommendations of what you can look out for:

Surface Features

Mars is fascinating to observe because the surface has ginormous valleys, volcanoes and seas. The Valles Marineris (valley) is bigger than the Grand Canyon here on Earth and the Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the entire Solar System. Using a cheaper, lower aperture telescope will not afford you as good a views as if you opted for a larger telescope at 6/8″ and above. Start by looking at greater areas, before honing in closely on specific objects.

Dust Storms

This is another interesting component of the landscape and environment on Mars. Dust Storms will vary depending on when you view them, and can range in size and relative power. However, Dust Storms are notorious on Mars and are usually pretty large. They can be observed with a telescope. It has been documented that once every five years, the entire planet is subject to an all-consuming Dust Storm. Keep on the lookout for news of such planetary wide events, they’re commonly cited when expected and occuring.

Polar Ice Caps

Just like planet Earth, the northern and southern hemisphere of Mars experience polar ice caps during the planets seasons. When Mars is closest to us here on Earth it is most apparent. The caps are quite observable due to the contrast with the red of the planet surface itself.

Final Words

Mars is a fascinating planet; one that new astronomers are keen to observe with a telescope. Its important to remember that Mars is best seen during the latter half of each alternating year. So for second half of 2020, when Mars is closest to us here on Earth, you’re going to get the best views. The first half of 2021, 2023, 2025 etc will not be quite the same! Taking this all into consideration, it makes sense to invest in a good telescope and get to work practicing using it. If you are able to observe it when it is most distant, you’ll have no troubles when it draws closer. You’ll also be in for a great surprise when it draws closer! Other guides you may want to read: