Astronomical Information

Planet Finder

Planet Exploration

Only five planets are visible without binoculars or a telescope; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. With binoculars you can also see Uranus, Neptune and a few bright asteroids if you know precisely where to look. The easiest way to identify the planets is to view them on nights when the moon is nearby. Those nights are listed in the stargazing notes section.

Mercury is the most difficult of the visible planets to locate because it is rarely far enough from the sun to be seen in a dark sky. The best views come in the spring evening, or the autumn morning sky. Mercury currently is hidden in the glare of the Sun.

NASA Mercury Messenger Page

Venus is the most brilliant of all the planets. It shines as a morning or evening star, and is never visible late at night. Venus currently is hidden in the glare of the Sun.

Mars appears as a moderately bright red star. Its quick motion across the background constellations can be detected in a few weeks of stargazing. Many probes have traveled to Mars, and rovers Spirit and Opportunity continue to explore the planet's surface, while the Mars Global Orbiter, Odyssey, and Mars Express scan the surface from above.
Mars (magnitude +1.4, crossing from Taurus into Gemini) glows dim and distant low in the east-northeast before and during dawn. It's lower right of Capella and lower left of Aldebaran. In a telescope, Mars is just a tiny blob only 4.4 arcseconds in diameter. It's on its way to a poor opposition (13.9 arcseconds wide) next March.

NASA Mars Exploration Page

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Because of its huge size, you can see the disk of the planet with just a pair of binoculars. If you hold the binoculars steady enough you may even see Jupiter's largest moons.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.4, in southern Aries) rises in the east around midnight daylight saving time. Look above it for the little star pattern of Aries and (once Jupiter is well up) closer below it for the head of Cetus, rather dim. By dawn Jupiter shines very high in the southeast.

Saturn is the ringed planet, but you’ll need a telescope with 30 power magnification to see the rings. It appears as a moderately bright yellow star. Currently, the planet is being studied by the Cassini space probe.
Saturn (magnitude +0.9, in Virgo) is sinking ever lower in the west-southwest at dusk. Look 12° left of it for Spica and 2° right or lower right of it for fainter Gamma Virginis (Porrima).
NASA Cassini/Huygens Page