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Best telescopes for seeing planets 2022

Person with telescope looking at moon and planets in night sky
(Image credit: Getty)

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. While the planets are difficult to see they do have some commonalities. Namely, they're all very small in the night sky but are relatively bright — making them perfect night sky targets for any telescope that concentrates on optical resolution and high magnification. Surprisingly, even a smaller telescope can give great planetary 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. 

There are also other optical accessories to consider when shopping for a planet-hunting telescope. Eyepieces with greater magnifications can help get larger views of the tiny planets. Astronomers should also consider Barlow lenses to help attain high magnifications of between 120-250x (within the optical 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

Skywatcher Mercury 707 Refractor (Image credit: Skywatcher)

Sky-Watcher Mercury-707

A traditional first telescope with excellent accessories

Specifications

Optical design: Double refractor
Mount type: Alt-Azimuth
Aperture: 2.76” (70mm)
Focal length: 27.6” (700mm)
Highest useful magnification: 140x
Supplied eyepieces: 10mm (70x) and 25mm (28x)
Weight: 5.5 kg (12.1 lb)

Reasons to buy

+
Highly affordable
+
Lightweight
+
Great Accessories

Reasons to avoid

-
Unsubstantial tripod
-
Mount could be improved

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

Product Photo of the Starbase 80 telescope

(Image credit: Takahashi America)

(Takahashi) Starbase 80

Premium traditional refractor with beautiful optics

Specifications

Optical design: Doublet refractor
Mount type: Altazimuth
Aperture: 3.15” (80mm)
Focal length: 39.37" (1,000 mm)
Highest useful magnification: 200x
Supplied eyepieces: 6mm (133x) and 14mm (57x)
Weight: 6.35 kg (14 lb)

Reasons to buy

+
Superb premium optics
+
Lightweight
+
Dual-axis slow-motion controls

Reasons to avoid

-
Optical finder costs extra

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 6x30 optical version. However, the sheer quality of the experience straight out of the box might just make you forget about that.


Best value 4-inch refractor

Product photo of the Celestron XLT 102

(Image credit: Amazon)

Celestron Omni XLT 102

Solid refractor with a sturdy mount and tripod

Specifications

Optical design: Doublet refractor
Mount type: Equatorial
Aperture: 4” (102mm)
Focal length: 39.4” (1000mm)
Highest useful magnification: 204x
Supplied eyepieces: 25mm (36x)
Weight: 19.5 kg (43 lb)

Reasons to buy

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Solid optics and mechanics
+
Sturdy equatorial mount
+
Optical finder

Reasons to avoid

-
Only one eyepiece in the box

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

Product photo of the Sky Watcher Heritage 90

(Image credit: BH Photo Video)

Sky-Watcher Heritage-90P Virtuoso

Compact, high-power tabletop astronomy with auto-tracking

Specifications

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain reflector
Mount type: Dobsonian (table top tracking version)
Aperture: 3.5” (90mm)
Focal length: 49.2” (1250mm)
Highest useful magnification: 180x
Supplied eyepieces: 10mm (125x) and 25mm (50x)
Weight: 5.1 kg (11.5 lb)

Reasons to buy

+
Ultra compact design 
+
Built-in tracking
+
Good battery life

Reasons to avoid

-
No optical finder

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

Product photo of the Meade ETX125 Observer

(Image credit: Amazon)

Meade ETX125 Observer

Complete portable computerized observatory

Specifications

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain reflector
Mount type: Computerised fork mount
Aperture: 5” (127mm)
Focal length: 75” (1900mm)
Highest useful magnification: 254x
Supplied eyepieces: 9.7mm (196x) and 26mm (73x)
Weight: 11.3 kg (25 lb)

Reasons to buy

+
High-performance optics
+
Precision GoTo and tracking
+
Excellent eyepieces

Reasons to avoid

-
No optical finder
-
Relatively expensive

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

Product photo of the Sky-Watcher Skymax-180 Pro

(Image credit: Wex)

Sky-Watcher Skymax-180 PRO (HEQ5 PRO SynScan)

Stunning high-contrast, high-power views

Specifications

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain reflector
Mount type: Computerised equatorial mount
Aperture: 7.1” (180mm)
Focal length: 106.3” (2700mm)
Highest useful magnification: 540x
Supplied eyepieces: 28mm (96x)
Weight: 11.3 kg (25 lb)

Reasons to buy

+
High-end refractor performance
+
Precision heavy-duty mount
+
Large optical finder

Reasons to avoid

-
Only one eyepiece supplied

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

Product photo of the Celestron CPC Deluxe 1100 HD Edge

(Image credit: BH Photo and Video)

Celestron CPC Deluxe 1100 EdgeHD

Uncompromising power and clarity

Specifications

Optical design: Modified Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector
Mount type: Computerised fork mount
Aperture: 11” (280mm)
Focal length: 110.2” (2800mm)
Highest useful magnification: 661x
Eyepieces supplied: 23mm (122x)
Weight: 42.2 kg (93 lb)

Reasons to buy

+
Ultra-high resolution
+
Super sturdy mount and tripod
+
Precision GoTo and tracking

Reasons to avoid

-
One eyepiece
-
Very heavy

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!

How we test the best telescopes for seeing planets

In order to guarantee you’re getting honest, up-to-date recommendations on the best telescopes to buy here at Space.com we make sure to put every telescope through a rigorous review to fully test each instrument. Each telescope is reviewed based on a multitude of aspects, from its construction and design, to how well it functions as an optical instrument and its performance in the field.

Each telescope is carefully tested by either our expert staff or knowledgeable freelance contributors who know their subject areas in depth. This ensures fair reviewing is backed by personal, hands-on experience with each telescope and is judged based on its price point, class and destined use. For example, comparing a 10-inch Dobsonian to a 2.76-inch refractor wouldn’t be appropriate though each telescope might be the best pick in their own class.

We look at how easy it is to set up, whether computerized or motorized mounts are reliable and quiet, if a telescope comes with appropriate eyepieces and tripods and also make suggestions if a particular telescope would benefit from any additional kit to give you the best experience possible.

With complete editorial independence, Space.com are here to ensure you get the best buying advice on telescopes, whether you should purchase an instrument or not, making our buying guides and reviews reliable and transparent.

Telescope Glossary

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.

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Contributing Writer

Tom Kerss F.R.A.S. is a London-based astronomer, astrophotographer, author and consultant. Having previously worked at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, he is the founder of Stargazing✦London, which delivers world-class online astronomy and space courses with subject experts. Tom is also the host of the Star Signs podcast, providing updates from the world of space news, as well as what to look out for in the night sky. With a background in astrophysics and science communication, he is an avid stargazer and aurora-chaser who is always looking for his next astronomy adventure. Tom has authored numerous best-selling astronomy books for both adults and children, including 2021’s Northern Lights: The Definitive Guide to Auroras, which offers a complete introduction to nature's most magical skybound phenomenon. Find out more about Tom's projects and other books at stargazing.london