A closer view: what does Mars look like through a telescope?

Boundless and mysterious space has always attracted humans. One of the most magnetic universe objects for us is the planet Mars. Its name, color, proximity, and similarity to Earth make us turn our eyes – and telescopes – to it again and again.

what does Mars look like through a telescope

So, what exactly can you see through a telescope, and what do you need for observing Mars?

Before you take a telescope

Before observing Mars, let’s get some facts about it to understand what we are looking at and what we can see:

  1. Mars is about half the size of Earth.
  2. Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and our closest planet in the Solar system.
  3. It belongs to the group of terrestrial planets along with Earth, Venus, and Mercury.
  4. Like other planets of this group, Mars consists of an inmost iron core, a silicate mantle, and a crust, which is a mixture of elements forming soft rocks. Once the tectonic activity of Mars shaped its surface with huge volcanoes, canyons, and lowlands, now only crustal movement and dusty storms change the surface features.
  5. The opulent amount of iron on the Martian surface contacts with the atmosphere and forms iron oxide, assuming that famous rusty color and assisting us to detect Mars in the night sky.
  6. The axis of the Red planet is tilted and thus brings seasons on Mars. Due to the orbit eccentricity, Martian seasons have various durations. In winter, you can easily spot polar ice caps on Mars’s surface.
  7. Mars got its name after the Roman god of war, and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos, are called after the two horses that pulled his chariot.
  8. Both are thought to be asteroids trapped by Mars’ gravity. Interestingly, the two Mars moons rotate in opposite directions. Those can only be seen through a scope with 8″ or more aperture, provided atmospheric conditions are good, and the planetary observers are within the limits of 70.4° of the north or south latitude.
  9. A Martian day is only 37 minutes longer than an Earth day, while a Martian year corresponds to 687 days. That’s how long it takes Mars to complete one lap around the Sun, almost 2 human years. So, Mars gets close to the Earth approximately once every two years, and that is the best time for observing it.
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Mars’ major features to see through a telescope

You can spot major surface features through a telescope.

Albedo markings

These are major dark surface areas and light patches as seen through a telescope from the Earth. In 1877, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli studying Mars through a telescope assumed that dark areas were marshes, lakes, and seas and gave them antique names. Today we know that dark regions present exposed volcanic rock cleaned from rusty dust by winds.

Syrtis Major Planum is a low-shield volcano that lies in the Northern Hemisphere of Mars. It takes vast territories called the Syrtis Major quadrangle.

Mare Acidalium quadrangle is located in the northern part of Mars. Most of this area is covered by Acidalia Planitia. It’s also home to Arabia Terra, Tempe Terra, and Chryse Planitia. The territory counts lots of bright spots that are probably mud volcanoes and gullies, which may be traces of the water once flowing here.

Hellas Planitia is seen as a light area in Mars’ Southern Hemisphere. It has the form of a rough circle and is a flatland located in the impact crater. Other large impact basins are Borealis Basin, also known as North Polar Basin, and Utopia Platinia, the biggest in our planetary system.

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Tharsis is a light patch just north of the equator with the three biggest Mars’ shield volcanoes altogether called Tharsis Montes. They are Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Olympus Mons – the largest volcano in the Solar system.

Elysium is one more volcanic area in the northern part of Mars. It hosts the volcanoes Hecates Tholus, Elysium Mons, and Albor Tholus. Elysium also contains a series of troughs and fissures, among them are Cerberus Fossae, Elysium Fossae, Galaxias Fossae, Stygis Fossae, and Zephyrus Fossae.

The Valles Marineris is a huge canyon system running along the equator for about 2485.5 miles (4000 km). It covers almost a quarter of Mars’ perimeter. Here you meet Noctis Labyrinthus, Lus Chasmata, Candor and Ophir Chasmata, Coprates Chasma, Capri and Eos Chasmata, and an outflow channel area with chaotic terrain.

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Dust storms

A Martian dust storm may last for many weeks and cover the entire planet. In 1971, a space robot Mariner 9 reached the orbit of the Red Planet to find the huge dust storm with just a few highest peaks of Mars visible above it.

Dust storms change the terrain considerably. This may well explain why Mars observers have made different descriptions of surface details over the years.

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Polar ice caps

Another amazing feature to see is the polar caps. Mars has two of them, one at each pole. The caps mainly contain water ice. During winter, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere freezes and accumulates around a polar cap.

The North polar cap compiles around 3.28 ft (1 m) of frozen CO2 in winter, with a total cap diameter of 621.3 miles (1000 km).

The Southern polar cap is constantly covered with dry ice about 26.25 ft (8 m) thick, and the diameter of the ice cap reaches 248.5 miles (400 km). It looks at the Earth in the opposition period, so you can see Mars’ South Pole very well.

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The polar caps have spiral troughs. Scientists explain this by the blowing here perpendicular katabatic winds and the Coriolis effect on them.


CO2 from the Martian atmosphere freezes in winter. But as the pole turns to the Sun, dry ice sublimates, and together with dust, forms fleecy clouds. These can be seen through a telescope.

Best time to view Mars

Every 26 months, Mars appears at its closest to the Earth and this is called opposition. The opposition day plus/minus a couple of months is the best time to observe the Red Planet. During this period, the planet shines brightly in the night sky. Otherwise, Mars is quite small, and it is tricky to distinguish any surface detail even with an advanced telescope.

Funny, but since the Earth and Mars have an elliptical orbit and are tilted towards each other, the minimum interval between them is different each time. The smallest possible distance from Mars to Earth comprises 33.9 mil miles (or 54.6 mil km).

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Once in 15 to 17 years, the Red Planet takes a more advantageous position for observations. The latest such event happened in October 2020, and we’ll see Mars that near again in 2035.

In 2003, Mars’ opposition was the closest, presenting a spectacular sight for professionals and amateur astronomers. Next time such an approach is expected in 2287.

Telescopes to observe Mars

To find Mars in the sky, you don’t need a telescope. But you require it to see Mars’ surface in detail. Focal length and some other scope characteristics play a role in successful stargazing.

Good eyepieces are vital for a clear image and the right focus, don’t choose achromatic ones for viewing Mars.

An aperture is the diameter of the primary mirror or lens of a scope. A small telescope has an aperture size of 3 to 5″ and allows you to see Mars’ ice caps and major dark patches. The larger the aperture is, the more fine details you will catch. A 14″ telescope will provide you with plenty of amazing features but requires clear conditions to use it to the max.

Magnification is the ratio of how much a telescope enlarges an object. To see Mars, set the maximum useful magnification of your telescope. Magnification is closely connected with the focal length.

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An eyepiece’s focal length is the distance between the primary lens and the focus. The longer focal lengths give more magnification and the other way round, a short focal length provides less magnification.

Unlike a reflector telescope, refracting telescopes need collimation before use and align it to bring light to the best focus.

To get a better vision of Mars, you can use light filters. The orange filter is considered the best here as it enhances the contrast between light and dark even through clouds and fog.

If you want to know not only what does Mars look like through a telescope, but also would like to see other planets through telescopic lens, like, for instance, a Mercury, please click on the link.

Other tools to observe Mars

Mars is one of the closest planets to Earth, and you can even spot it with the naked eye. But it will only appear as a red dot.

A good pair of binoculars will give you a chance to get a clearer sight, but still no details of surface features.

You can use your tablet or mobile to see Mars, other planets, and constellations. There are stargazing applications that allow us to find and recognize celestial objects.

You set the camera on a star or planet and wait for the app to determine what is. Or even easier: input the desired object into the search bar and your phone will give you directions on how to locate it.

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Mars is the only planet in the Solar system whose surface features are visible from the Earth. When in opposition, you can find Mars in the night sky by its bright light with a reddish hue. Even a small telescope gives a good chance to see Mars’ polar caps, lighter and darker regions, and maybe dust storms.

An advanced large telescope allows us to notice more surface details and dark features like volcanoes, canyons, basins, and plains, and even more planets including gas giants and even such a small planet as Mercury.

What you need is some patience, your own telescope, and some luck to catch good conditions when neither light pollution nor atmospheric dust obscures the Red Planet.

If you are interested in learning more information on how to see this celestial object and find more images, that show what does Mars look like through a telescope, just follow the link.


Can you see Mars with a telescope?

You can see Mars through a telescope. A small telescope will give you a general idea of the Red Planet. A bigger professional scope allows you to detect a fine detail of Mars’ surface.

What would Earth look like through a telescope on Mars?

If looking at the Earth from Mars through a telescope, you will see two crescents – our planet and its natural satellite, the Moon. Amazing that a Martian observer can spot the back side of the Moon, which is never visible from the Earth.

With a good scope and from a short distance, you could view some prominent features of the planet’s surface, depending on which side is turned to Mars at the moment.

What do you see when you look at Mars through a telescope?

Depending on your telescope, you can view Mars at different scales, from a reddish dot to a disc with some surface features distinctive. The bigger your scope, the better image it provides.

Why is Mars blurry through a telescope?

If your picture of the Martian surface is blurry, firstly, try to clean the eyepiece of your scope with a clean soft cloth. Still smudgy? Then the cause may be the atmospheric seeing.

Natural disturbances plus thermal noise from the objects around you like asphalt, concrete, and buildings can blur an image. A great place for viewing Mars is a mount peak, a waterside, or a grassy field.

Ida Stewart

I have had the incredible opportunity to work as a tour guide at the planetarium for over 5 years. Ever since I was a child, astronomy has held a special place in my heart, and I have nurtured a deep passion for exploring the wonders of the universe. Among all the celestial bodies, Mars has always fascinated me the most, captivating my imagination with its mysterious allure.

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