Seeing the Solar System
You don't need your own Voyager to see the
solar system. You can see much of it from your own back yard. Of course,
you don't see the fantastic closeup views that NASA gets, but you can
see it first-hand with your own eyes.
If you enjoyed The Nine Planets, go outside and take a look at what you
just read about. You'll be amazed how rewarding such a simple thing it can be.
To find the planets, you'll need to know where to look.
Sky & Telescope or a similar magazine
for up to date positions or check
one of the several Web sites that
show planetary positions.
A planetarium program (such as
Starry Night for the Mac
or SkyMap for PCs)
can also be useful, especially for the moons.
The tables below are ordered by visual magnitude
("Vo"; bigger numbers are dimmer); this is the maximum brightness that the object
attains (approximately when it is closest to Earth).
"Date" is the date of discovery.
You can see 99.99% of the mass of the solar system with no instruments whatsoever.
- Never look directly at the Sun! Always use a special solar filter designed specifically for solar observing.
- Solar Observing FAQ by Jeff Medkeff
- Does the Earth really count? Only the Apollo astronauts
have ever seen the Earth
from far enough away to perceive it as a globe.
- Those with good eyes (especially children) and
may be able to see a few of the binocular objects below, too.
A simple pair of binoculars is by far the most cost-effective optical aid
available. For $200 you can get a far better
optical instrument than Galileo or
You will find it much easier if you arrange a stable support for your
binoculars (such as a tripod).
- Looking at the Sun with binoculars even for a fraction of a second can burn a hole in your retina. Be very careful, especially when looking for Mercury.
If you're really serious a modest telescope will reveal many more moons.
The first few below are pretty easy, the last few are considerably more
difficult. Good dark skies are essential.
|Rhea||1672||9.7||Giovanni Domenico Cassini|
|Tethys||1684||10.2||Giovanni Domenico Cassini|
|Iapetus||1671||10.2||Giovanni Domenico Cassini|
|Dione||1684||10.4||Giovanni Domenico Cassini|
|Pluto||1930||13.6||Clyde W. Tombaugh|
|Amalthea||1892||14.1||Edward Emerson Barnard|
|Hyperion||1848||14.2||William Cranch Bond|
- Phobos and Deimos are harder to see than it might appear
since they are so close to Mars (and the above magnitudes
are for a favorable opposition)
- The same holds for Amalthea and Janus.
- Iapetus' brightness varies greatly as it rotates, from 10.2 to 11.9 or less.
- The order of discovery
may be a better guide to what is easy to see than magnitude.
- Mars FAQ for amateur astronomers
Of course, the solar system has more than just planets and moons.
Every year there are comets
that can be seen with small telescopes and usually
one or two that can be seen with binoculars. Occasionally there are comets visible to the unaided
eye such as Hale-Bopp which was so spectacular in 1997.
It's easy to see a few of the brighter asteroids
with binoculars. Several hundred can be seen with small telescopes. And even today, many
asteroids and comets are still discovered by amateur astronomers.
If you're out at night under a clear sky, you are pretty likely to see
a meteor. You may see dozens of meteors
if you catch one of the regular
You can even see the interplanetary medium
if you're close enough to the poles to see an
aurora or if you see the
zodiacal light or the
You can also see the stars
51 Pegasi, 70 Virginis and 47 Ursae Majoris which
probably have their own planets, though of course,
you can't see the planets themselves.
Pictures (taken with amateur telescopes)
- Venus at noon (Mel Bartels)
- 2 images of Mars (Dean W. Armstrong)
- Jupiter (Dean W. Armstrong)
- Saturn (D. Armstrong)
- Jupiter, Moon, Saturn, Eric Lengyel
- Moon, Sunspot, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Ryerson Astronomical Society
- Jupiter, Venus, Sun, Moon, Mel Bartels
- Mars, Saturn, comets, David Hanon
- list of amateur images on the Net by Richard Bright
Bill Arnett; last updated:
1999 Sep 26