If you have ever wondered if it is possible to see the planets without a telescope, you have come to the right place. I have done the research, as well as spent some time investigating, to come up with a definitive answer for you.
Can You See Planets From Earth Without A Telescope? Yes – there are five planets that are visible from Earth without a telescope with the naked eye. These are: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It may be possible to see a further planet, Uranus, but this will depend on a few factors (your eyesight, the weather conditions etc). Although there are some limitations using the naked eye, it is still possible. Consider that you will see the planets as bright lights (they will look like stars). You can also invest in a good pair of astronomical binoculars to see more, or get further detail and clarity on the planets.
Since it is possible to see the planets without a telescope, I will give you some more information so you know what you can expect to see and are aware of factors that you should consider when doing this.
What Planets Can You See Without a Telescope
Planets have been observed with the naked eye for thousands of years. In fact, it was the Ancient Civilizations who first discovered the planets in this way by eyesight. They were identified by their movement patters in the sky, relative to other stars that appear in the night sky.
The five planets Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter (and potentially Uranus) can all be seen by the naked eye or with a pair of astronomical binoculars.
In roughly every ten years, it is possible to see all six of the planets in the sky at once.
Not considered a planet because it is not orbiting the sun, you can also see the Earths Moon.
What Do The Planets Look Like?
You can see Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter relatively clearly with your naked eye. However, it is important to note that they will appear only as small bright spots of like. In many ways they look like stars.
For this reason alone, it is hard to distinguish them from stars and in the beginning its actually quite hard to tell that they are planets.
You can see Mercury at very specific times, although it typically looks faint. Specifically, you will need to look very early in the morning (around sunrise) and similarly in the evening (before sunset). Essentially you need to catch it at either end of the day/night. This is because you need to wait for Mercury to align left or right of the Sun in it’s orbit relative to us on Earth.
Using Astronomical Binoculars
There are a number of astronomical binoculars available with different specifications that can help us observe the planets without a telescope.
The reputable company Celestron manufactures high-spec astronomical binoculars that will enable you to view the planets with a lot more clarity and for sharp viewing. They can also be used to see in low light and long-range conditions. You are going to need these to see Uranus.
The benefits of using binoculars are that you can also see additional detail. One of the best things to look out for when using them are four of Jupiter’s moons: Europa, Lo, Callisto, and Ganymede. The reason in why they are considered moons and not planets, is because they are not orbiting the Sun, but instead orbiting Jupiter.
By using a pair of binoculars, you’ll also be able to get a glimpse at the rings of Saturn, the red-like color of Mars and the bright nature of Venus.
The better the magnifications of the astronomical binoculars that you use, the higher the chances of seeing detail on each of the planets.
It is with higher-magnification binoculars, like Celestron’s 20×80 pair, that you will be able to see more clearly the rings of Saturn or the clouds and spot on Jupiter. It is important to note that this will still appear relatively small, so for better viewing it is advised to use a telescope.
How Can You Distinguish a Planet from a Star?
All stars are fixed in the night sky relative to each other. Imagine that they are points of light attached to a crystal sphere that rotates around the earth once a day.
Alternatively, the planets are in many ways “wandering”. They are not fixed and they travel among the other stars.
The planets follow a path along the Zodiac (a belt of stars containing constellations). You may know of these from popular culture: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.
Now when it comes to observing, it is is important to note that the planets only move about 7 degrees from the Ecliptic (Earths Orbital Plane).
Planets typically “wander” east among the stars, staying within their boundaries to the Ecliptic. On occasion, planets will deviate from this path and start to come back on themselves west (for a period of time, usually a couple of weeks or a few months). Then it will reverse and head eastward once more.
As such, the planets are positioned closely far from the Sun (Mercury and Venus are especially close). This enables us to view them (and observe the various phases they go through).
Due to the various phases, we can see planets differently (clearer, more detail etc).
The phases we can see planets in are known as:
- Quarter Phase: Where the planet is furthest from the Sun (as seen from Earth)
- Gibbous Phase: Where the planet is furthest from the Earth
- Crescent Phase: The planet is closest to the Earth.
Another important thing to consider is that Planets do not produce light ; you actually see them by sunlight that they reflect. This has implications for viewing them as their position relative to the sun dictates how much, or what we can see.
Stars are different in the sense that they produce their own visible light; meaning that they will typically not change in appearance at various times of the day, night, week, month or year.
How To Identify Each Planet
One of the best ways to isolate and locate each Planet is to use Planetarium Software like (Stellarium – a free software for your computer). If you have an understanding of the sky, you may even find that you can do this without such technology.
Using Planetarium Software is quick, easy and effective. What it does is it shows you exactly where to look for Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter.
Then, if the conditions are right, you can then go and look in the direction advised by the software.
Sometimes, they will not be visible there and then. This can be due to weather conditions, pollution or their location (too close to the Sun). For the latter, you will need to wait a few weeks or months before trying to see them.
For Mercury, Planetarium Software will help you to understand when it is at its most distant elongation. When identified, you then just need to look at either the eastern or western horizon at specific times.
If you are looking at the Eastern horizon, you will need to look intermediately before sunrise.
If you are looking at the Western horizon, you will need to look just following sunset.
In both cases, you will be looking for a bright light in the orange sky.
With Uranus and Neptune, once directed by the Planetarium Software, you just need to look using astronomical binoculars where advised.