Mercury is the smallest and closest planet to the Sun.  It is never far from the Sun in the sky, which makes it tricky to spot, as it is often lost in the glare at sunset or sunrise.  However we are lucky at Woodlands View as we sit in a valley that runs east west allowing us some reasonable views of the solar systems speediest planet.  We have spotted this planet on many occasions and Nettie managed to photograph it one morning while looking for Comet Ison.

Visually, Mercury looks like a fairly bright star in the sky glow as the Sun is either setting or rising.  It is never visible for long though as it sets fairly soon after the Sun or gets outshone in the daylight.

Through a telescope Mercury shows phases similar to the Moon.  However as Mercury is so small and close to the horizon when it is visible it is really difficult to make out the phases as you are looking through miles of atmospheric turbulence.

Due to its proximity to the sun, great care must be taken when observing Mercury.

Venus is the brightest planet in the sky and the second closest planet to the Sun.  Like Mercury, it can never get too far from the Sun so is best seen after sunset or before sunrise.  Being further from the Sun than Mercury means that Venus can be see higher in the sky which makes it easier to study, especially as it too goes through phases that can be seen through a small telescope.

Venus is much easier and safer to spot than Mercury as it is so bright and it can linger for longer in the sky before setting in the evening, or being outshone by the Sun in the morning.  Venus is often spotted above the eastern or western horizons at Woodlands View as a beautiful bright star in the twilight sky.  It makes a lovely object to photograph when located near the crescent Moon.

Mars is known as ‘the red planet’ and it really does look red to the naked eye.  Through a small telescope or binoculars it is easy to make out a small reddish disk, but no details.  A larger telescope (4”) is required to make out the ice caps but you also need really good seeing conditions and a dark site.  Mars is best viewed when it is high in the sky and the Earth’s atmosphere is fairly still, otherwise the image shimmers and wobbles (this shimmering and wobbling effects the viewing of all planets).  If you are lucky you will get the odd flash of an ice cap when the atmosphere stills.  Like most things you get better at observing with practice as you train your eyes and brain to make the best use of optimal seeing conditions. 

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and one of the easiest to observe, especially for beginners.  Visually it looks like a bright star but through binoculars or a small telescope it is clearly a disk.  You can also pick out the four major moons of Jupiter without difficulty.  They look like tiny pinpricks of light near the planet.  The positions of the moons change nightly (even hourly) and you can get maps showing their locations.  These moons were first see by Galileo in 1610 and are known as the Galilean moons.  They are named Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.

Sometimes only two or three moons are visible as the others are behind or in front of Jupiter.  With larger telescopes it can be possible to see a transit of one of the moons as it passes in front of Jupiter or watch a shadow transit cross the surface of planet.

A 3 inch telescope will show some of the cloud bands on Jupiter and maybe the Great Red Spot but a minimum of a 6 inch ‘scope is required to make out much detail.  As with all observing the seeing conditions are important.

We enjoy photographing Jupiter and trying to image the Galilean moons.  Wal usually gets better images than Nettie as he has a better quality lens.

Saturn is the ringed planet and is defiantly an ‘Oh wow!’ moment when viewed for the first time through a telescope.  Saturn looks like a faint yellowish star when seen with the naked eye.  With a small telescope Saturn shows a small yellowish disk with a ring around it.  Galileo was the first person to see these rings in 1610.  The orientation of the rings changes over a 29½ year period as seen from Earth.  Sometimes they are virtually edge on and barely visible, other times we see them inclined towards us and we get a really good view. You can also spot Saturn’s largest moon Titan as a tiny point of light near the rings.

Large telescopes (6 inches plus) are required to make out details in the rings and on Saturn’s surface.

Wal has taken some images of Saturn using a webcam and our 8 inch Dobsonian telescope.  Nettie photographed Saturn while locating Comet Ison.  The photo was not taken through a telescope so Saturn just looks like a bright star.  (How do we know it was Saturn?  We checked on a sky map).

Uranus and Neptune are far from the Sun and therefore extremely faint.  They cannot be seen with the naked eye from Woodlands View (Neptune is not actually a naked eye object at all).  It is possible to see these planets through some of our larger telescopes but we have not yet managed it although they have possibly turned up in some of the wide field photographs that we have taken.  They show as tiny greenish or bluish disks.  A good sky map is needed to locate them and conditions need to be good with no moonlight.  We look forward to visually observing these planets in the future and maybe getting some photographs.

 

Below is an animated orrery that depicts the motions in our solar system. You can set the date and time if you wish. Click just to the left or the right of the animation to open it fullsize in a new window. You may then change the settings as you wish.

 

 Orrey courtesy of dynamicdiagrams.com