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Observing Mars, Saturn & Jupiter - Summer of 2018

Mars Close Up Summer of Planets 2018

This summer, millions of people will turn their eyes and telescopes skyward to gaze at Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in all their glory.  All three planets reach opposition between the months of May and August, and that means they'll be closer and brighter than any time this year.  In fact, Mars, which reaches opposition as well as its closest approach to Earth in late July, will shine brighter than any time since 2003 and won't be as bright again until September 15, 2035!

Viewing last summer's Total Eclipse of the Sun was pretty straightforward as far as equipment was concerned, but observing the planets, even when at their closest, is a bit more complicated due to their comparatively smaller size.  Approximately 1,000 Jupiter's could fit inside the Sun, and it is one of our biggest and brightest planets.  If the Sun were a giant gumball machine, it would take 1.3 million Earth gumballs to fill it!  That's a lot of humungous gumballs; just try scraping one of those off the bottom of your shoe!  My point is, the Sun is really big, and the rest of the planets, by comparison, not so much, so it takes a bit more than just our own two eyes to experience much detail, even at the best of times.  However, that fact shouldn't stop you from standing under our own planet's giant dome of stars late one night to experience the planetary dance this summer, and if you have a little bit of help from a pair of binoculars or a telescope, so much the better. 

How to View the Planets

 

With Just Your Eyes and Imagination:  Turn off your lights and head outside on a clear, dark night.  Leave your cell phone behind.  If you have a planisphere, it will help you get a feel for the constellations so you'll be able to more easily find (and identify) any planets in the sky.  Look up.  What bright "stars" do you see and where?  All summer long, Jupiter will be in the constellation of Libra, Saturn will be in Sagittarius, and Mars will be cavorting with Capricornus, the Sea Goat, so if you have done a little homework or have your trusty planisphere with you, you'll realize that most likely the bright stars you are seeing in those constellations are actually planets.  Do they twinkle?  If not, that's another clue that you're looking at a planet, not a star.   Read More...

 

With Binoculars:  The right binoculars will help you see more detail on all three of this summer's planets.  You may very well already have a pair, and by all means, pull those puppies out of the closet and give them a try on Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.   

In order to enjoy the views through your binoculars when looking at the night sky, here are a few tips:

1.  Binoculars with larger optics (the second number in the numerical specs, i.e. 7x50, 8x25, 10x42) will show you more than small, compact binoculars.  If you have a choice, opt for the bigger binoculars, even though they are heavier.  When using binoculars for astronomy the goal is to bring in as much light as we can.  The bigger the aperture, or optics, the brighter the image.  The smallest binoculars would most likely frustrate you more than they would help.

2.  For the sharpest views and the least hassle, mount your binoculars on a tripod.  A camera or video tripod will do.  You will need a binocular tripod adapter to connect your binoculars to the tripod, but they are inexpensive.  What you are shooting for here is stability, my friend.  Hand-holding binoculars works fine for most normal situations, but there is no way we can hold still enough to see, for instance, Saturn's rings or the moons of Jupiter.  Trying to do so will be frustrating and cause eye strain.  By mounting your binoculars you will be able to enjoy sharp, shake-free views of the planets, and your arms will thank you! 

3.  Once your binoculars are set up on a tripod and you've adjusted it to a comfortable height, use the hints suggested in the first section of How to View the Planets to find the planets, etc.  

4.  Remember, the Earth rotates!  Binoculars mounted on a platform, as well as telescopes on a non-motorized mount, will require adjusting often to track a celestial object's movement across the sky.  You will be amazed at how fast they move!   Read More...

 

With a Telescope:  A telescope is absolutely the best way to observe and enjoy the planets as well as other heavenly delights like the Moon, comets, double stars, nebulae, galaxies, giant clusters of stars, and more!  Read More...

If you don't have a telescope yet:  There are many things you'll want to take into consideration when choosing a telescope, and it will benefit you greatly if you take the time to think about them before you buy.  Since you are reading this article, I will assume you want to view the planets, but is there anything else you'd like to be able to see or do?  What about experiencing the thrill of observing faint deep-space objects that are hundreds of millions of light years away?  How about photography through a telescope; does that interest you?  How important is portability to you?  Do you like the idea of a telescope that will find objects for you or one that you can use in the daytime as a spotting scope?  There are hundreds of telescopes to choose from!  We even have scopes that can be controlled with your smartphone or tablet!  At High Point Scientific, we have customer service representatives who enjoy astronomy as a hobby and can help guide you towards the best scope for you and your wallet, so if you are looking for a new telescope, please contact us by phone, email or chat to take advantage of our knowledge and expertise.  We are not on commission and our only goal is to help you love amateur astronomy as much as we do!

If you already have a telescope:  Awesome!  As long as it works and you have at least one eyepiece, you will be able to observe Jupiter, Saturn and Mars this summer in way more detail than through binoculars or with your eyes alone.  If you would like more information on how to set up and use your telescope, check out our First Time Telescope User's Guide.  It covers a lot of ground and explains topics like eyepieces, Barlows, observing sites, seeing conditions and a whole lot more in greater detail.  If you haven't used your scope lately and are wondering whether it is in working order after living in the closet or garage for we-won't-mention-how-long, follow the Read More link to get ready for summer planetary viewing.

 

What about eyepieces?  For planetary viewing, the most useful eyepieces are those that provide about 100X magnification and either a second eyepiece or a Barlow lens that will work with your eyepiece to achieve, on average, somewhere between 100X to 250X magnification.  It's always preferable to have two or three magnification choices.  This allows you to adjust your max magnification to the evening's seeing conditions and besides, you'll be looking at other objects with these eyepieces besides the planets.  Read More...

 

Will color filters help?  Yes.  While you can certainly look at the planets without a filter on your eyepiece, the right planetary filter will bring out details and markings on the planet's surface or it's cloud structure that would be faint or not noticeable otherwise.  Color filters used for planetary viewing screw onto the barrel end of an eyepiece or Barlow.  Choose 1.25" color filters for 1.25" eyepieces and 2" color filters for 2" eyepieces.  Keep in mind that darker filters such as 25 Red and 38A Blue will require larger telescope apertures to work best, while filters with high light transmission numbers will work with most any telescope.  You can learn more about the recommended filters for each planet below, and if you'd like a planetary viewing kit that includes seven different 1.25" planetary filters and a 2.5X Barlow, check out our exclusive High Point Ultimate Planetary Filter and Barlow Kit!

 

Jupiter by Dave Barrett

Jupiter by Dave Barrett

Jupiter will shine brightly in Libra this summer, having reached it's closest approach to Earth on May 10th.  Use a blue filter (80A, 82A or 38A) to enhance views of the Great Red Spot or to boost the boundaries between Jupiter's reddish belts and their adjacent bright zones.  A yellow (8), orange (21) or red filter (23A or 25) will help bring out details that are bluish in color, such as the planet's atmospheric currents, the polar regions, and sections of the belt structure. 

  

Saturn - NASA

Saturn by NASA 

Saturn is traversing the Teapot region of Sagittarius this summer and will reach opposition on June 27th.  At its brightest, Saturn will shine at +0.0 magnitude and will be just a hop, skip and a jump from Earth at just 841 million miles distant.   You can enhance a variety of low contrast features on Saturn with a blue filter, such as those found between the belts and zones, and Saturn's polar features will pop more easily into view.  A blue filter will also increase the contrast in those magical, ethereal rings.  Switch to a yellow, orange or red filter to darken the blue tones of the atmospheric currents or pick out the orangish features in the belts and zones.  

 

Mars - NASA

 Mars by NASA

Mars takes center stage this summer and believe me, you will not want to miss it. On July 27th Mars will reach, not just opposition, but perihelic opposition, meaning Mars will be closer to Earth (and hence bigger and brighter) than it has been since 2003 and won't be again until 2050!  The Red Planet will appear as a very bright orange disc against the dark skies of Capricornus. At it's brightest, Mars will shine at magnitude -2.7 and will show off its polar and desert regions, oases, and canal markings in even smaller telescopes.

Mars Size Comparison - May 2018 vs July 31, 2018

 

Mars May 2018 vs July 31, 2018 Size Comparison - NASA

If you'd like to enhance your views of Mars on this most auspicious of oppositions, try a yellow, orange or red filter to darken the maria, canals, and oases and, at the same time, lighten the desert regions of the planet.  A blue filter is great for studying the polar ice caps and will also enhance any high clouds over Mars.

Links to Articles and Products About & For the Planets

Observing the 2018 Opposition of Mars with a Telescope

Imaging the Planets with Relatively Inexpensive Equipment

Binoculars & Spotting Scopes for Astronomy

Planetary Telescope Packages

Ultimate Planetary Filter & Barlow Kit

 

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