Our planetary neighborhood is a fascinating place, with each world exhibiting its own unique identity. Whether it’s the phases of Venus, great storms in the Jovian cloud tops, or the enchanting rings of Saturn, there’s so much variety to enjoy. Fortunately for astronomers, the planets do share some common attributes: they’re tiny in apparent size and relatively bright. This makes them ideal targets for telescopes that prioritize resolution and magnification, and even fairly small instruments can give us great views.
When shopping on a budget, there’s an argument to be made for choosing a smaller refracting telescope than a similarly priced but larger reflector, because the secondary mirrors and struts in Newtonian telescopes perturb the incoming light in a way that reduces image contrast. For many dedicated planetary observers, a large refractor is the dream but there are downsides. Refractors are bulky, heavy, and expensive, so compound telescopes such as Maksutov-Cassegrains and Schmidt-Cassegrains make for a good compromise.
When shopping for your ideal planet-hunter, consider eyepieces or Barlow lenses that will help you reach higher magnifications between 120-250x within the practical limit of the telescope. This will allow you to observe in the sweet spot on most nights when the seeing is average. Here are some of the best telescopes for seeing and capturing planets.
Best value for beginners
If you want to follow in the footsteps of Galileo and other early pioneers of modern astronomy, a traditional refractor is a great place to start. The Mercury-707 is a well-designed and fairly priced planet-spotter for those on a budget. With a simple, robust optical design, it requires little to no maintenance, and ships with accessories perfectly suited to maximize its performance. The included eyepieces can each be paired with the Barlow lens to provide four different magnifications, including 140x – the maximum practical power of the telescope. This is enough to see large features on Mars and Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and the beautiful colors of Uranus and Neptune.
Also included is a true optical finder with 6x magnification, making it a breeze to accurately center your chosen planet in the high-power field of view of the main telescope. Remarkably this finder by itself is twice as powerful as Galileo’s first telescope! The key drawback of the Mercury-707 is its tripod and mount. With somewhat flimsy legs and no slow-motion control for its azimuthal axis, it can be tricky to keep things in view as the Earth rotates, and a light gust will introduce vibrations that spoil the view. But in calm conditions and with a steady hand, you can certainly have a rewarding experience at a price that’s hard to argue with.
Best achromat for purists
Japanese manufacturer Takahashi is world-famous for its outstanding, best-in-class telescopes. They’re also known for their eye-watering prices, but in partnership with fellow manufacturer Hanamaki, they’ve recently introduced the Starbase 80 as an affordable introductory model. Its 80mm F/10 lens is made in Japan – a hallmark of optical quality – and comes paired with two orthoscopic eyepieces, which are perfectly suited to sharp, high-contrast views of the planets. These are a cut above the Plossl eyepieces typically included in telescope bundles, and won’t need to be upgraded any time soon. The optical tube assembly also comes adorned with the gorgeous creamy white and teal livery that Takahashi is known for.
Add to all of this the beautifully designed yet lightweight tripod and mount with dual-axis slow-motion handles, and you have a package that evokes the nostalgia of outstanding, classic Japanese achromats from brands like Vixen. The Starbase 80’s only drawback is its basic peephole finder, which can be upgraded at an extra cost to a 6×30 optical version. However, the sheer quality of the experience straight out of the box might just make you forget about that.
Best value 4” refractor
Celestron’s Omni XLT 102 is quite a unique offer, which includes a nice telescope and mount combination. The 4” F/10 achromat gives fine views, and its focal length makes it a good match for some of the best planetary eyepieces. Unfortunately, only one is supplied in the box, but with the addition of a 10mm and Barlow lens, you can achieve powers of 36x, 72x, 100x and 200x. At this top end, the Omni XLT 102 will show you some lovely details on our neighboring worlds.
Celestron also sells a 120mm and 150mm version of the same telescope, but notably, all three come with the same CG-4 equatorial mount. Whilst the larger models push the weight limit of the mount, the 102 is ideally suited to it. As such, it feels sturdy to use and dampens any vibrations quickly. Being an equatorial mount, it requires some practice to set up properly, but offers easy, one-handed tracking of the planets once properly set up. For those looking to go hands-free, Celestron offers a separate dual-axis auto-tracking upgrade kit that you can install at any time.
Best for portability
The Heritage-90 Virtuoso’s compact size belies its power. Using two mirrors and a meniscus lens, it folds a whopping 1.25m focal length into a tube just 28cm long allowing it to reach its maximum useful magnification with a comfortable 7mm eyepiece. The Maksutov-Cassegrain design is known for its ‘refractor-like’ performance, which provides better contrast than a Newtonian reflector of the same aperture. This is great for preserving the rich colors of planetary surfaces and atmospheres, which are easy to admire in the Heritage-90. Its simple red dot finder isn’t ideal, but the smooth slewing controls on the motorized Virtuoso mount make positioning objects easy.
The mount can also track the sky to counteract the rotation of the Earth, keeping your object of interest in the field of view, and it can be upgraded at any time via Sky-Watcher’s Synscan GoTo handset, granting it the ability to find more than 40,000 objects in the sky for you. Naturally, the planets are on that list! If you want to fast-track to the full GoTo system, and you’re interested in a more powerful telescope with a similarly compact design, you might want to check out the Heritage-90’s big brother, the Skymax-127 Virtuoso GTI.
Best for guided tours of the Solar System
Meade’s venerable ETX125 is a long-time favorite in the amateur astronomy community. Revised and improved over the years, it features a 1.9m long folded telescope on a precise computerized fork mount, with a decent tripod to keep everything steady. The computerized controller can find more than 30,000 objects, and includes AudioStar – an audio tour of the sky, that speaks to you about what you’re looking at. Right out of the box, this telescope will give you fine planetary views. The included 9.7mm Series 4000 Super Plossl eyepiece achieves 196x magnification, enough to resolve famous features in the Solar System. You can see the Martian polar caps, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, and the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings.
Meade has thoughtfully designed the ETX125 to include a flip mirror, allowing you to switch between the eyepiece and a camera attached to the back of the tube. Position a planet in the center of your eyepiece, flip the mirror up, then snap away with your camera. You can even explore long-exposure photography in the future using the built-in equatorial tilt plate. While it isn’t the cheapest 5” Mak on the market, this feature-rich traveling observatory offers an unmatched balance of quality optics and smart technology.
Best for precision tracking
The Skymax-180 PRO was purpose-built for Solar System exploration. Its high-resolution, long focal length optical system delivers performance akin to a much costlier large apochromatic refractor, providing flawless images of the planets rich in colorful details. With a 7.1” primary mirror, it also has enough light grasp to bring many of the Solar System’s moons into view. The single 2” 28mm eyepiece won’t make the most of this telescope’s potential, so you’ll need to invest a little extra, but even a comfortable 8mm or 10mm planetary eyepiece will be well tolerated by its formidable optics.
For absolute precision, the Skymax-180 PRO is matched to an HEQ5 PRO equatorial mount, designed for heavy payloads. This opens up a wide range of photography applications, from high resolution planetary and lunar imaging to deep-sky imaging, should you buy another telescope to swap out with the Skymax in the future. In general, ‘over mounting’ a telescope is always a good idea if you can spare the room, as this will keep things nice and stable at very high magnifications. It’s easy to see why this system has become popular with both visual observers and imagers alike.
Best for serious planetary imaging
Planetary imaging is an addictive hobby, and fortunately, you can get started on any telescope that tracks the sky. But if you plan to get serious about capturing our neighboring worlds, a large aperture instrument is a must. It provides greater resolution, allowing more details to be recorded by the imaging sensor. The CPC Deluxe 1100 EdgeHD features an 11” high-performance main mirror, capable of resolving the surfaces of the most remote planets. On more forgiving targets, such as Venus and Jupiter, it sees remarkable detail, and the skilled observer will even be able to pick out landmarks on Mars without too much trouble.
The CPC mount is versatile and sturdy, proving excellent tracking for extended imaging sessions, and it can be converted to an equatorial platform using a wedge for deep sky astrophotography too. It’s certainly heavy, but two people can readily assemble this telescope in the field and pack it down again in a few minutes. Of course, with just one eyepiece in the box, you’ll need to budget for more, but at this size, it’s the camera that sees the most benefit. If planetary imaging gets its hooks into you, at least you know there’s an upgrade to aspire to!
Aperture: Diameter of the primary mirror or lens, which allows a telescope to collect light.
Field of view: Area of sky visible through the eyepiece.
Focal length: A telescope’s tube length. Short focal lengths offer a wide field of view and a small image.
Focal ratio: Also known as the telescope’s speed. Small focal ratios provide lower magnifications, wide field of view and a brighter image.
Magnification: Relationship between the telescope’s optical system and the eyepiece.
Unlike the deep sky, which remains almost unchanged throughout our lives, the planets constantly bring us new and sometimes surprising reasons to look again. They’re easy to find and inspiring to take in – real worlds that we or our descendants may visit one day. Any telescope can make them look impressive, but a well-tuned high-contrast instrument does them justice, and you’ll be thankful to have one to hand when something special occurs, like the arrival of an incredible gas giant storm, or a night of exceptionally steady seeing that invites you to max out the power. If you plan to take your own images, it’s well worth considering a model with tracking capability, altazimuth or equatorial – both are suitable for short exposures. At such long focal lengths, the Earth’s rotation quickly moves things out of the field of view, and dedicated planetary imaging cameras have small sensors. Regardless of which telescope you choose, you’re in for an exciting new hobby as a Solar System explorer. Enjoy the magnificent highlights of our celestial neighborhood!