How to Find the Planets

Three Methods:Looking with the Naked EyeFinding Planets with a Telescope or BinocularsUsing Outside Resources for Help

Since ancient times, before the advent of the telescope, astronomers and others were able to pick out moving points of light that looked different from stars. These are the planets, which can be located in the night sky. With the naked eye or an affordable telescope, you can see Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. You can try locating the planets on your own, but smart phone and computer applications may help. As the night sky changes with the time of year, it may be helpful to have an interactive map on your phone or computer.

Method 1
Looking with the Naked Eye

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    Choose the right time. If you want to observe the planets with your naked eye, timing is key. The best time to look for planets is roughly 45 minutes before sunrise. Depending on the time of year and your location, the precise timing of sunrise will vary. You may want to spend a few days tracking sunrise before attempting to observe the planets so you'll know a good time to go out.[1]
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    Pick a good location. You will want to choose a location where you can look in the rough direction of the sunrise. This means there should be no buildings, trees, or other landmarks blocking your view.[2]
    • If you live in a rural area, it should be fairly easy to find a location free of obstruction. However, make sure you watch out for larger trees as these can block your view of the planets.
    • If you live in an urban area, you can try standing on a large structure like a rooftop or parking garage. This can allow you to see over the buildings to observe the planets.
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    Consult a star map. While the planets generally fall near the sunrise and their order remains the same, their precise location changes by season. You may have to look farther east some times of the year to properly see the planets. You can purchase a star map or star atlas at a bookstore, which will provide you with varying maps of the skyline by season and location. You can also find star maps online, many of which will be calibrated to the current season and your location. It's a good idea to review a star map before you set out to view the planets.[3]
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    Look for Venus and Jupiter. Venus will the easiest planet to find with the naked eye as it's by far the brightest. Jupiter is the second brightest, so it will also be fairly easy to locate. If you look slightly to the south of the sun, you should see what looks like an abnormally bright star in the sky. This is actually Venus. If you look slightly farther south, you should see another bright star. This is Jupiter.[4]
    • The location of Venus and Jupiter will change by season, and it may be easier to find in the months of January and February. Consult your star map to calibrate for your time of year.
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    Locate Mercury near Venus. Mercury is the planet closest to the sun. If you look slightly to the lower left of Venus, you will see another brighter star in the sky. This is Mercury.[5]
    • Mercury can be particularly hard to find as it's not as bright as the other planets. Mercury sometimes hides behind twilight or clouds. Unfortunately, if the sky is not clear you may not be able to locate Mercury with the naked eye.
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    Keep looking for Saturn and Mars. Saturn and Mars will be located between Venus and Jupiter. They may not always be visible to the naked eye. In the months of February and January, they may be easier to spot. Saturn will be closer to Venus, while Mars will be closer to Jupiter.[6]
    • You can use color to find Saturn and Mars. Saturn will have a yellowish glow that distinguishes it from other stars. Mars will appear rusty or reddish in color.
    • Keep in mind it's difficult to find Saturn and Mars during certain times of the year. Sometimes, they may not be visible with the naked eye at all. Consult your star map before going out to see if it's possible to find Saturn and Mars that morning.

Method 2
Finding Planets with a Telescope or Binoculars

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    Examine Mercury with binoculars. As Mercury is not particularly bright, and is often obscured by clouds, you may need binoculars to find it. Try pointing a pair of binoculars into the sky and moving them slightly to the lower left of Venus. You may be able to find a small, bright star-like object. This is Mercury.[7]
    • You do not necessarily need expensive binoculars. However, if you enjoy stargazing, you may want to invest in a more expensive brand. Decent binoculars can go for $200 and may give you a better view of all the planets.
    • Mercury is very close to the sun, so be careful when using binoculars. If you point your binoculars into the sun by mistake, you could cause damage to your retinas.
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    Prepare your telescope. If you want to get a more up close look of the planets, try using a telescope. You can buy a telescope online, and then use it to locate the planets.[8]
    • Before going out to observe the planets, follow the instructions manual to set up your telescope at home. Make sure you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the new device. See how the knobs and handles work, reading the manual as necessary. You don't want to be confused as to how to use your telescope when you're trying to find planets.
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    Look at Venus up close through a telescope. Once you're comfortable using your telescope, take it out around 45 minutes before sunrise to observe the planets. As with looking at the planets with the naked eye, it's best to start with Venus. You can easily locate Venus with the naked eye, as it's the bright star a little to the south of the coming sunrise. Once you've found Venus, you can point your telescope towards it and observe.[9]
    • Venus takes many different shapes and colors depending on the time of year. It may be a good idea to consult a star atlas to get a sense of what Venus will look like during the time of year you're observing. This will give you a sense of what to look for.
    • Keep in mind that while telescopes will enhance your view of the planets, you will not receive images on par with something from the Hubble Telescope. Most images you see in the night sky will appear grayish and somewhat distant, even with the aid of a telescope.
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    Use your telescope to examine the cloud belts and moons of Jupiter. Once you've found Venus, you can swing your telescope to the right. You can get a great view of Jupiter by looking through a telescope as you'll be able to see its belts and some of its moons.[10]
    • You may see two dusty belts in Jupiter's midsection. These are the belts of Jupiter, which you can observe closely with a telescope.
    • You may also see a few moons on either side of the planet, which are somewhat aligned with the belt.

Method 3
Using Outside Resources for Help

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    Use smart phone applications. As the night sky changes so much based on the time of year, it can be tough to locate the planets. You can download applications on your smart phone that provide you with an interactive map of the solar system.
    • If you have an Android, you can download an application called Stellarium. This application provides an interactive 3D map of the solar system based on the time of year. Stellarium can also help you identify objects in the sky, such as planets, if you point your phone at an unknown object.[11]
    • For an iPhone or iPad, try SkyGuide. This is an interactive map similar to what you would find on Stellarium. You can take your phone with you when stargazing to help identify and locate the planets.[12]
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    Download an application for your computer. You can also put a map of the solar system on the desktop of your computer. Before you go Stargazing, you can simply consult your desktop to get an idea of where to look for that night. Stellarium, in addition to being available on mobile phones, can be downloaded on a desktop. For Macs, an application called PhotoPils can be used to map the night sky on your desktop.[13]
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    Try using a star atlas. If you feel like the presence of technology would distract from your star gazing experience, try investing in a star atlas. Star atlases have been around for a long time. They are books that breakdown the location of stars and plants based on location and time of year. You can purchase a star atlas online, check one out from your local library, or buy one at a bookstore.[14]
    • Star atlases provide maps based on time of year and region. You'll need to look in the book's index to find the proper map for your needs. When going out stargazing, take the proper star map with you and use it as a guide.
    • Make sure you know how to read your star map. Each star map is slightly different in terms of keys. For example, in one star map red dots may be used to signify planets. In another, blue dots may be used.


  • The planets are almost always brighter than stars, making them easier to find.
  • It is not necessary to use a telescope to see the classic planets, just a good clear sky. A telescope, however, can make viewing the planets more interesting.

Article Info

Categories: Astronomy