The planets are some of the most miraculous things we can see with the human eye. We are all aware of their contours and shape, with scientists giving us a vivid picture in our minds before we even put the scope to our eye.
You can pass literally hours gazing up at the stars trying to find these amazing phenomena.
There are ways that we can see these awe-inspiring planetary bodies from the comfort of our own backyard.
One of the easiest ways to do this is with binoculars and telescopes, buying the right magnification for the job, you can render some of the most alarmingly clear images of Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.
Because these are the 5 most visible planets in the night sky, appearing even to the naked eye. But with so many stars, satellites and other nighttime debris, it can seem almost impossible to know exactly what you’re looking for and where in the infinite blackness you can see them.
But how can you see these visible planets with the naked eye? What time of day, month and year is it best to see them with a telescope? What are the best telescopes to see the outer planets Uranus and Neptune? What features should you look for on each planet?
Well, if you are a lover of the night skies like we are, then you won’t have to worry about these questions for much longer, as we’ve compiled an in-depth guide to our solar system for budding astronomers.
We’re going to discuss all the visible and invisible planets and how best to see them, as well as an updated viewing calendar for 2021, so you’ll know exactly when and where to point your telescope to get the best view.
The Planets In The Solar System
This planet is the smallest in our solar system (only slightly larger than Earth’s moon) and zips around the sun in only 88 days.
Being so close to the sun, it experiences radical changes in temperatures during the day and the night, with day temperatures getting to 840-degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt metal.
This is the second planet from the sun, Venus, which is roughly the same size as Earth, except with a much more humid atmosphere.
It is riddled with various volcanoes and mountains, with a thick, toxic cloud of sulphuric acid, an example of the greenhouse effect at its most extreme.
The home we all know and love, Earth is a water-based planet and the only one in our solar system that has been known to inhabit life.
Its atmosphere is rich in oxygen and nitrogen and it revolves around the sun 365 days a year.
Another of Earth’s neighbors, it has been the subject of numerous science fiction films, being the origin of the term Martian.
It’s a very cold desert planet covered in red dust that is largely composed of iron oxide.
The fifth planet from the sun and the largest in our solar system, this gas giant currently has 79 moons orbiting it, with a few more yet to be classified.
You can fit 5 planets the size of Earth into it, with a very dense atmosphere of largely molecular hydrogen and helium, which you can see in the form of swirling colorful gases.
Sixth from the sun, this planet is famous for its appearance, being the only one with rings around it. These are made from ice and rock and scientists are still uncertain as to how they were formed.
This planet is another gas giant, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium, it also has many moons orbiting it.
Next up, we have the seventh planet from the sun, the first of what scientists and observers call The Outer Planets.
This planet has an atmosphere made up of hydrogen sulfide, which is the same component that makes rotten eggs smell so disgusting.
Our final eighth full-sized planet from the sun is Neptune, which is roughly the same size as its neighbor Uranus.
Neptune has extremely harsh winds, one of the coldest planets in the solar system, being around 17 times the size of Earth, it has a rock core and an atmosphere made mostly of hydrogen and helium.
Is There Anybody Out There? - The 5 Visible Planets
The 5 visible planets are the ones that we can see with our naked eye in the sky and look incredible through a telescope.
These planets are, not coincidentally, the closest ones to the planet Earth. They are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn are particularly visible due to their massive size.
The Ice Giants - The Outer Planets
The two planets that we mentioned above, Neptune and Uranus, lie on the outer edges of the solar system, are smaller and a lot less easy to spot with the naked eye.
You might be able to see Uranus, but unless the conditions are right and there is no surrounding pollution, you might not be blamed for missing it.
However, Neptune can only be seen with binoculars or a telescope, and even then you won’t be able to see the intricate details of the planet’s surface, rather only spying it as a pinpoint of light. However, we will give you the best guide to spying on the outer regions of the solar system later on.
Inferior Vs. Superior
Dealing strictly with the 5 visible planets, for now, let’s group the 5 planets into 2 separate groups: inferior and superior.
Inferior planets - these are basically Mercury and Venus, called inferior because they are closer to the sun than the Earth.
Superior planets - these are the planets that lie further away from the sun than the Earth, namely Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Now that we've separated these planets into 2 separate categories, let’s look at each group individually and what equipment and conditions you’ll need to observe both.
How You Can See The Inferior Planets
The fact that Mercury and Venus are closer to the sun and inside Earth’s orbit gives them several unique properties that will affect how you view them and what times they will appear visible in the night sky.
For one, these planets orbit much faster than the Earth, so they will move quicker across the night sky. This means that even within the course of a night, you can expect the positions of Mercury and Venus to change.
These planets have crescent phases in the same way that the moon does, as we can see sections of these planets when they are not facing the sun. If you type into ‘Mercury’ or ‘Venus’ into Google, you will be able to see images where these planets are in a crescent formation.
These planets are best viewed during what is known as their ‘greatest elongation’, which is when they are the furthest point away from our sun in the night or evening sky. This is why Venus is known as the ‘evening star’ as it stays out late and also wakes up early.
In 2020, the two greatest elongations of Venus were in the morning and the evening, so if you woke up early enough, the chances are that you would see Venus cresting in the sky brighter than any other star.
The time when these planets are their least visible is when they are in what is called ‘conjunction’, which is when Earth, the sun and the planet in question are in a straight line. There are two forms of planetary conjunction:
Superior conjunctions - this is when a planet is on the opposite side of the sun to us, obscuring it completely due to its gigantic mass.
Inferior conjunctions - this is when the planet in between the sun and the Earth, causing the sun to completely obliterate the small planet due to its intense glare.
In both forms of conjunction, the planets are completely obscured by the glare of the sun. Ideally, we want the planet to be out of the sun’s intense glare directly, allowing us to view it from an angle, where we can see the reflection of the sun off its surface.
There is an exception during which we can see a planet during conjunction and that’s when inferior conjunction happens during which either Venus or Mercury is on the same plane as the Earth and the sun.
We can then see the transit on the planet across the face of the sun, which can only be viewed indirectly through specially adapted solar viewing equipment.
However, these solar transits are very rare. The next one scheduled for Venus is in 96 years, whereas Mercury is set to transition across the sun in 2032.
However, as mentioned above, the best way to see these planets is during their greatest elongations, as this will give you the rich and vivid colors as well as the shape and approximate size of the planet itself.
Mercury is one of the most difficult of the planets to find in the night sky, making an appearance for an hour before sunrise or after sunset, so you can only expect to see it during either dusk or dawn, where lighting conditions can be incredibly variable.
Venus, on the other hand, has a much longer arc of orbit than Mercury, so you should be able to see it more clearly against the darkness of the night sky. However, you’ll have to catch this one quickly too, as it sets and rises within a few hours of the sun
When Is The Best Time Of The Day To See A Planet?
The ideal position of the inferior planets is at a specific angle from both the sun and the Earth, when one side is in direct illumination that will allow us to see the details and shape of it.
However, during superior and inferior conjunctions these planets will simply not be visible because of their positions to the sun.
The best time of day to view superior planets is when they are in what is called opposition, being directly opposite the sun but behind the earth. This means that the planet is illuminated well enough for us to see on Earth and where our viewing experience isn't affected by the direct glare of the sunlight.
How You Can See The Superior Planets
The planets that lie outside of Earth’s orbit, namely Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, are called the superior planets and have a very different positioning and orbiting style than Mercury and Venus. This means that you have to abide by a different set of criteria to see them in the night sky.
These are the main properties that superior planets have that marks them out as different from their inferior counterparts:
The planets take a lot longer to orbit the sun than the Earth, meaning that they will move a lot slower in the night sky than Mercury and Venus. They will also move a lot slower than surrounding constellations.
Being inside their orbit, we can only see the side of these planets that are facing the sun, meaning that we always see them in their whole circular form, rather than in a crescent form.
The ideal time to see these superior planets is when they are in opposition, that is, when they are directly opposite the sun.
However, there is one way that these superior planets are linked to the inferior planets and that’s through superior conjunctions with the sun. This is when the sun is between them and the Earth, rendering them invisible due to their intensive glare.
Unlike the inner planets, the superior planets never pass between the Earth and the sun, so when we sit in an oppositional place to them, we essentially have a shaded window box view of these planets with very little light pollution.
With an oppositional planet, we get hours to view it before it becomes obscured by either the sun or it just dips out of view of whichever side of the Earth that you happen to be on.
Opposition also coincides with the planet being closest to the Earth also, which gives you even more spectacular views, especially if you are monitoring them through your telescope.
We hope this gives you a better idea of the science behind viewing planets and why their movement throughout the day will determine your ability to see them better. Now we’re going to move onto the 2021 calendar for planetary viewing, which parts of the month are best to see each one and why.
Which Planets Can You See Tonight?
Using the following calendar, you’ll be able to track which exact planet is going to be visible tonight, as well as every night for the next 12 months.
We’ll also tell you what the best vantage point is going to be for seeing each planet and which direction in the night sky you should be looking at.
As we have established, despite being the smallest and closest planet to the sun, it is still possible to spy Mercury from Earth, even if it is only for a few sweet hours. You can even see it without a telescope if you know when and where to look.
For the best chances of seeing Mercury, you'll need to find an elevated position such as a mountain or a hill, as this planet keeps itself very close to the horizon line. If you are surrounded by tall buildings and trees, the chances are that Mercury will be obscured.
We would recommend piling your telescope or binoculars into the van and taking a camping trip - why not make an event out of spying on one of the rarest planets in the solar system?
How Can You See Mercury Tonight?
The fact that Mercury is so close to the sun means that it has a very rapid orbit, so its cameo in the night sky will be very short. At 88 days orbit, it has already completed 4 laps of the sun in the time it takes for us to just do one.
The proximity that Mercury has to the sun means that we can never see it in true darkness and that it will never be that high in the sky - poking up at a slender 10-degrees above the horizon before sunrise and after sunset.
For perspective, 10-degrees is the length of your outstretched arm, which is not very high at all!
The time during which you can see Mercury is also very limited, as it is only visible for an hour after sunset or before sunrise. This means that you’ll either have to get up very early or wait until the sun has set - we recommend the last option so you won’t disrupt your sleep pattern.
Also, because of its speedy orbit, you won’t be able to see it for multiple days at a time as it gets subsumed by the sun’s brightness.
If you want to catch Mercury before sunrise, you’ll have to be looking directly to the east, whereas it rises in the west after sunset.
Viewing Rewards and Challenges
Remember that this small planet is very close to the sun, so you’ll run the risk of staring directly into it, which could damage your eyesight permanently. You’ll want to make sure that the sun is sufficiently behind the horizon before you start looking through your eyepiece.
You can also try Googling the time of year for the crescent of Mercury, which is something pretty incredible to witness.
The 2021 Mercury Viewing Calendar
January - This is best viewed as an ‘evening star’ between the 15th and the 28th.
February - There is very limited visibility during the beginning of the month, although by the end it rises and becomes a lot more visible.
March - Mercury extends 11-degrees above the horizon on March 6th, which is when it reaches its greatest elongation. However, after that it drops to 4-degrees, which will make it harder to see with the naked eye.
April - In the final days of this month, you can see Mercury low on the horizon over the west/northwest horizon.
May - This is one of the best viewing opportunities for Mercury during 2021, with the greatest elongation on the 17th, which is when Mercury will be 12-degrees above the horizon for 40 minutes after sunset.
June - At the end of this month, Mercury becomes a ‘morning star’, although viewing will be poor.
July - The greatest elongation of this planet happens on the 4th, appearing low on the horizon for around 40 minutes before sunrise. It remains viewable until the last week of the month.
September - The 13th is when the greatest elongation occurs, although even then it is very shallow, barely grazing the horizon for 40 minutes after sunset.
October - On the 25th, you’ll have the greatest elongation of the year for Mercury, appealing at 10-degrees above the horizon for 40 minutes before sunrise. The best viewing will last from October 21st to November 6th.
November - Decent morning viewing occurs for the first 10 days, becoming obscure for the rest of the month.
December - The last evening glimpses of Mercury happen during this month, with appearances southwest for 40 minutes after sunset.
Now it’s time for the other inferior planet, one that is the brightest object in our night sky apart from the moon. This is often referred to as the morning and evening star due to its luminescence, rising in the morning way before the sun sets and setting after it during the evening.
Venus stays out slightly longer than Mercury, shining in the night sky rather than just the glow of the dusk or the dawn. It also has plenty of crescent phases in much the same manner as the moon does, so you can see it through your telescope in various stages of light.
However, because of the thick and toxic atmosphere of Venus, the chances are that you won’t be able to witness the finer details on the surface, just the swirling vortex of carbon dioxide and droplets of sulphuric acid that surrounds it. Venus has no moons of its own either.
How Can You See Venus Tonight?
Like a lot of the other planetary bodies in the solar system, Venus exists on the ecliptic, but it never strays too far from the western horizon during the evening or the eastern horizon during the morning.
It shines much brighter than any other object in the sky and you can easily make out its shape and contours even with a pair of household binoculars.
When Venus is at its greatest elongation, far away from the sun, you should be able to see it throughout the night, it can be seen upwards of 30-degrees from the horizon from the central latitudes of the United States.
During 2021, you can expect to see Venus consistently in the sky from around May onwards.
Viewing Rewards and Challenges
As mentioned above, Venus tends to crescent in the same way as the moon does, which might lead to limited visibility during certain days of the month. If you are using your binoculars to see Venus, then you might mistake it for a satellite, but in reality you are only seeing part of Venus’ surface.
Venus will also change in size as it moves closer and further away from the Earth, which might also lead to misclassifications. The only way to know for sure whether or not this is Venus is by referencing its position in the sky.
You can also see Venus during the daytime, although you will need to know which direction to look in as well as a keen eye and some highly technical telescopic equipment.
You should be able to see the shadow cast by Venus upon the Earth. If there is no moon in the sky, Venus will be the brightest object and you will be able to put up a piece of paper against the wall and see rare Venusian shadows.
The 2021 Venus Viewing Calendar
January - Venus will show its face during the morning skies, but only for the first week of the year. After this, it will move closer to the sun and obscure itself until May, at which point it will emerge during the evenings.
February - Venus is not visible, choosing to hide itself in the rays of the sun.
March - As with February, Venus will be much too close to the sun to observe. It will reach a superior conjunction on the 26th of this month.
April - Not visible.
May - This is when Venus comes out of its hibernation, when it will become visible just above the northwest horizon during the last two weeks of May. It will appear about 6-degrees above the horizon with a magnitude of -3.9 with a 95% illuminated disc.
June - Venus will be more visible in the night sky, although it will still not be fantastic. During the middle of the month, Venus will be able 10-degrees above the horizon for around 40 minutes after sunset.
July - Venus is still only around 10-degrees over the horizon, appearing in the western horizon just after sunset. It has a magnitude of around -3.9, but the disc will be larger and less illuminated during the middle of the month.
August - Venus will be only three-quarters illuminated during August, although it will have expanded to 14 arcseconds wide and brightened to a magnitude of -4.0.
September - Venus will still be ensconced in Virgo, appearing at 10-degrees over the southwest horizon for 40 minutes after sunset. It will have increased its magnitude to -4.1 as it gets closer to Earth, being around 17 arcseconds wide. This still means that the disc is less than two-thirds illuminated.
October - Venus reaches its greatest elongation during this month, getting as far away from the sun as possible and being visible against the night sky. The ecliptic is not as extensive and the planet will only appear 11-degrees over the southwest horizon for just an hour after sunset. The Venusian disc will have grown to 23 arcseconds in diameter and shining at an impressive -4.3 magnitude.
November - During this month, Venus is 13-degrees above the southwest horizon about an hour after sunset, with its magnitude to brighten to -4.5, although the disc will be around 40% less lit. It is, however, slightly brighter, being closer to Earth at around 33 arcseconds wide.
December - The ecliptic of Venus will move more perpendicular to the horizon, with December providing some of the best Venus views of the year. It crests over the southwest horizon at around 13-degrees about an hour after sunset. It has an impressive magnitude of -4.7, at 15% illumination.
Now we move on beyond Earth and onto the superior planets, starting with Mars. This is one of the most documented planets, NASA having sent many rovers and satellites there, knowing the unique red surface better than any other planet.
However, you won’t have to construct your own rocket ship to see Mars up close, you can survey it from your very own backyard using a high-powered telescope or binoculars.
Like many other planets on this list, it will all depend on what time of night you peer through your night scope.
Mars reaches prime opposition every 2 years, with the last time it was visible being 2020, so you can only expect to see Mars with crystal clarity during 2022.
But, there are certainly opportunities for you to see it this year, you just have to make sure that you’re looking in the right vicinity, although you might be able to make out the particular details of its surface with just an ordinary telescope.
How Can You See Mars Tonight?
This year Mars travels the ecliptic in much the same manner as Venus and Mercury does, although obviously it is much further away than Earth, so it orbits a lot more slowly.
This means that it will scoot across our night sky a lot more gracefully than other planets, allowing you a better opportunity to see and peruse our next door neighbor.
Mars will start out the year of 2021 as an evening object, moving from Pisces into Aries within just 5 days. It will then slowly drift through the other zodiac constellations, eventually reaching Cancer in June.
Once this has taken place, it will be very difficult to see Mars, as it moves too close to the sun. It will soon disappear behind the sun, reaching superior conjunction at about November 17th and staying there for the remainder of the year.
Viewing Rewards and Challenges
During 2021, Mars has a lot more challenging viewing circumstances than most of the other planets on this list, mainly because it doesn’t reach opposition, which will give us the best chance of seeing it, until next year.
You should be able to notice the redness of Mars’ surface, even if it is not that clear to you. This will become immediately obvious through any size of telescope.
Mars will sometimes achieve a gibbous shape, although it does not have phases in the same way as Venus or the moon, rather it casts a shadow on the Earth at various times during its journey around the sun. This will give it the impression of being not entirely circular.
You might also be able to see Mars’ polar ice caps, with its last Winter solstice being during September 2nd, 2020 and the next one being July 21st, 2022. This year the planet’s summer solstice will begin on August 25th.
Unfortunately in 2021, unless you have a super powerful and super expensive telescope, you won’t be able to make out a lot of the finer details on Mars’ surface. However, you should still be able to make out shades of color, where the darker and lighter shades of the Martian surface meet.
You might be able to make out the twin moons that surround Mars, Phobos and Deimos, both being very dim in magnitude, somewhere between 11.3 and 12.4 respectively, which will put them slightly out of the sight of your cheaper scopes. You need a telescope with at least an 8- to 10-inch aperture to see them.
The 2021 Mars Viewing Calendar
January - During this month, it is best to see Mars at any time after 7pm, where it will peek over the southwest horizon, moving between Pisces and Aries. This will shine at a lower magnitude of 0.1 with a smaller disc that is just 10 arcseconds in diameter.
February - You’ll have to wait until the sky is very dark to view this planet, with a 7 arcsecond disc shining at 60-degrees in the southwestern horizon around 90 minutes after sunset.
March - Mars is a little closer to the sun during this month, midway between its zenith and the western horizon for around 90 minutes after the sunset. Its disc has shrunk to just below 6 arcseconds, with a much dimmer magnitude of 1.1.
April - This month Mars can be found at just 35-degrees over the western horizon 90 minutes after sunset, with it being at a 5-arcsecond disc shining at a magnitude 1.4, which is observable until midnight.
May - The planet will shrink considerably during this month as it moves away from the Earth, causing it to shrink to a magnitude of -1.6. Towards the end of the month the overall visibility will worsen.
June - During June, this planet is just 16-degrees over the western horizon for about an hour after sunset. The shadow of its closest approach shining at a magnitude -1.6 with a smaller disc of around 4 arcseconds. Towards the end of the month it sets for just 2 hours after the sun.
July - Mars will move too close to the sun for us to see during the middle of July, but during the first few days you might catch it very close to the horizon as the dusk grows.
August - Mars is not observable this month as it is way too close to the sun and will remain there until December.
September - Unobservable.
October - Unobservable. During this time it has reached its superior conjunction with the sun.
November - Unobservable.
December - Mars will make an appearance in the sky during the last days of the year. In the last week of December, you’ll be able to glimpse it at 9-degrees over the southwest horizon an hour before the sunrise, with a disc that is 4 arcseconds wide, shining at a magnitude of 1.5.
Despite being further away from us, Jupiter is significantly bigger than this planet, being a thousand times larger in the sky, meaning that it shines much brighter than some of its other counterparts. It is usually the third brightest object in the sky, coming behind Venus and the moon.
So, good news for space explorers is that you can see Jupiter from your telescope, appearing to us as a bright star that can be found in the constellation of Capricorn and Aquarius in 2021.
If you buy a telescope, you’ll be able to see a lot of the wonderful and mysterious features of Jupiter’s surface, including its infamous red dot, which is actually a storm that has been ravaging its surface for many hundreds of years. You can also spy some of the brighter of Jupiter’s moons too.
Even if you just use binoculars, you can still spot the larger Galilean moons, although having a telescope you’ll be able to see in more detail the rich textures of the planet as well as its colors.
How Can You See Jupiter Tonight?
Luckily, unlike some of the other planets on this list that are very elusive during the year 2021, Jupiter is happily very visible for most of the year, although it abandons the evening skies after a few months, appearing again in February before the sun rises.
After this, our solar system’s largest planet will be visible all the way through the year, reaching opposition on August 19th, from which point Jupiter is visible every evening through to the end of the year.
Viewing Rewards And Challenges
There are numerous challenges to seeing Jupiter, although if you know where to look, you will be able to see miraculous things from this giant.
One of these will be the largest moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, some of which are bigger than some of the other planets in the solar system. You should be able to see them as pinpricks of light on either side of the planet.
You should also be able to see the bands of color that surround Jupiter, which are the famous gasses that comprise its surface. You should be able to see these even on a smaller telescope, appearing in your sight as bands of shifting grey.
You’ll also be able to see Jupiter’s famous red spot, although you’ll need a minimum magnification of 250x to see it.
If you have a decent magnification, you should also be able to see the moons transitioning across Jupiter, appearing as tiny black spots across its face.
The 2021 Jupiter Viewing Calendar
January - You can spy Jupiter low on the horizon after the sunset for the first few days of the month, but as January carries on, this giant will disappear just 40 minutes after the sun.
February - Jupiter is not visible for a large portion of the month, rising very faintly on the very last day at 4-degrees over the east/southeast horizon.
March - The viewing of Jupiter increases rapidly during this month, although at the beginning you’ll only have a few minutes to spy it low on the dawn horizon. During the middle of the month, it will only rise 8-degrees above the southeast horizon 40 minutes before sunrise.
April - 60 minutes before sunrise, Jupiter can be seen 14-degrees above the southeast horizon, with a magnitude of -2.1.
May - An hour before sunrise, Jupiter will be visible above the southeast horizon. The planet will rise at roughly 3am, giving you a decent window of viewing.
June - As the maximum opposition draws closer, you’ll see Jupiter’s disc grow to 42 arcseconds and its brightness increase to a magnitude of -2.6. It will rise in the sky as the dawn breaks, appearing at 35-degrees over the south/southeastern horizon.
July - At this point, Jupiter is transiting at the southern horizon at 4am during the darkest hours of night. It will be almost 40-degrees above the horizon, shining at a -2.8 magnitude.
August - Jupiter will reach full visibility when it hits opposition on the 19th, where it will be 38-degrees over the horizon, shining at -2.8 magnitude with a 46 arcseconds wide disc.
September - Now that it has passed the opposition, Jupiter becomes an evening object, reaching its zenith just before midnight over the southern horizon. It fades slightly to a magnitude of -2.8, its disc shrinking to just under an arcsecond.
October - This is a premium period of observation for Jupiter, with it appearing at its highest over the southern horizon at 9.30pm, with a huge 43-arcsecond disc shining at a magnitude of -2.6.
November - Jupiter’s highest point during the month of November will be 36-degrees above the horizon at somewhere between 6pm and 7pm. Jupiter will continue to recede from the Earth, its disc shrinking to 39 arcseconds and its brightness fading to -2.4.
December - Jupiter’s transit now occurs during daylight hours, with the best time to view it will be an hour after sunset when it will be a mere 34-degrees over the horizon. As the year dwindles, Jupiter’s disc will be only 35 arcseconds wide and shining at a magnitude of -2.2.
Luckily, our final planet Saturn is equally as visible as Jupiter in 2021, outshining almost every star in the sky, with only the other planets and the moon beating it in terms of luminousness.
For a lot of astronomers, Saturn is certainly the most attractive of the planets, most of all because of its rings that are truly breathtaking to behold. The strangeness of this planet leads us to come back to it again and again.
How Can You See Saturn Tonight?
In much the same way as Jupiter, Saturn is one of the great gas giants of the solar system, with its truly enormous distance, it is a testament to its size that we can still see it against the night sky.
Because of Saturn’s distance from the sun, it takes upwards of 30 years to make one single orbit, so during 2021, it won’t move much against the background of the stars, spending almost most of the year in the constellation of Capricorn.
During the first quarter of the year, Saturn will be pretty much invisible to us. It starts as a morning object, reaching opposition on October 2nd, after which it becomes a highly visible evening object for the remainder of the year.
Viewing Rewards and Challenges
Of course, one of the best reasons for using a telescope to see Saturn is to make out its unique rings! In 2018, the rings started seeming a lot bigger due to them being more angled to the Earth.
However, in 2021, you’ll see them at a slightly flatter angle. You won’t see the rings with binoculars, so we recommend a decent quality telescope.
If you do have a good telescope with a decent magnification, then you should be able to see the individual rings, breaking them down into their scientific classifications: rings A, B, C, D and the Cassini Division.
You should also be able to spot Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which shines at an average magnitude of 8.3 and can be seen easily through a 4-inch telescope. It orbits at quite a far distance from the planet and should be easy to see if you look at the right time.
It is the largest of Saturn’s 61 moons, although with a larger scope you should be able to see Enceladus, Dione, Tethys and Rhea.
The 2021 Saturn Viewing Calendar
January - you can see Saturn for the first few days of 2021, appearing just a few degrees above the southwest horizon as dusk sets in. It reaches its superior conjunction on January 23rd, not being visible from around the 8th.
February - To catch Saturn 40 minutes before sunrise, make sure you have a clear view of the southeast horizon, where it will appear a few degrees above.
March - Saturn can be seen 10-degrees above the southeastern horizon, with a 15 arcsecond disc and a magnitude of around 0.7.
April - You’ll have to be up early during this month to see Saturn, as it will rise at 4am for an hour before the sun. It will appear 19-degrees above the southeast horizon slightly higher than Jupiter, which will be much brighter.
May - Maintaining it’s 0.7 magnitude, the disc will increase to 0.7 arcseconds. It will reach the highest point in the sky just after sunrise, so it is best to see it just an hour beforehand.
June - As the opposition of Saturn approaches, you can witness Saturn at its highest point just before sunrise. Then in the middle of the month, it will transit to the south horizon before 5am at an angular height.
July - The transit of Saturn occurs around 3am in the middle of July, which is the best time to view this planet. Although you can see it during the evening too as it rises above the horizon just before 10pm.
August - This is when Saturn is at its highest, reaching opposition on the 2nd. Transit comes a little after 1am, the size and brightness reaching a maximum of 18.6 arcseconds and 0.2 respectively.
September - As Saturn drifts out of opposition, it becomes an evening object, rising before sunset and reaching 32-degrees above the southern horizon, making transit just after 10pm. The magnitude and the disc size are dimmer than their August peaks.
October - Saturn begins to dwindle at the end of this month, although it is still high over the southern horizon even at 8pm.
November - Saturn’s transit occurs just after sunset now, so your best chances of seeing it will be against the dark backdrop of night. It has a 16 arcsecond disc wide and a brightness that has faded to a magnitude of 0.7.
December - Saturn is now at 22-degrees above the southwest horizon and hours after sunset, setting at around 9pm. The size and brightness of the planet is different, the planet heading for complete conjunction in February 2022.