What Casual Observers Say – Solar System Edition

In this post, we will go over the reactions that a public telescope operator often hears from people who have never looked through a telescope, and/or are simply unaware of what the questioned object is supposed to look like.

(Italics and parentheses represent the situations behind the reactions)

The Sun – White Light Filter

 White light filters allow you to safely view details on surface of the Sun, but not things like flares or prominences. Unless there is something visible on or in front of the surface like a sunspot, a transit, or eclipse, the Sun is very boring to show, thus people don’t appreciate the effort.

  • “It’s just orange.”
  • “What is this?!”
  • “All I see is orange.”
  • “Why is the sky black behind it?”
  • “I can see the radiation flames coming out of the surface! (no, that’s turbulence from the atmosphere)
  • “Is there anything else you can show?” (it’s DAY time!)
  • “I thought I’d be able to see flares!” (need a different filter for that)
Venus (and Mercury)

Venus can be observed during the day as long as it’s not too close in proximity to the Sun’s glare. Whether it’s at night or during the day, it’s always going to have a white color, but show various shapes due to its phase cycle. Mercury also counts in this category, but it’s much smaller and further away.

During “full phase” 

  • “It’s just a white dot!”
  • “I thought it’d look bigger.”
  • “Why is it black?” (there’s dust on the eyepiece)
  • “oh, it’s a dot.”
  • “Why is it so small?”
  • “Why does it look white?”

During “crescent phase”

  • “Oh, how cool!”
  • “It looks like the Moon!”
  • “Does it look any different at night?”
  • “Well, I can see the Moon, but where is Venus?”
  • “I didn’t know it shows phases!”
  • “Why is the Moon so small?”
Uranus and Neptune

Yes they’re two separate planets, but we still categorize them the same due to due to their distances and distinct color when seen through a telescope. While some do appreciate being able to see them at least once in their lives, most simply don’t grasp how far away they are and don’t realize we’re already using higher magnification. As they’re not naked eye objects, many could consider them deep sky objects instead.

  • “Why is it so small?”
  • “It’s just a blue/teal dot!”
  • “Can you make it look bigger?”
  • “Is that it?”
  • “The color looks nice!”
  • “I can see Uranus!”
  • “Can you please say a Uranus joke?”

Easily the object with the most intrigue yet biggest letdown! No matter what I show, I always get asked, “where’s Mars?” Watching their smiles turn to frowns is a big reason why people like us are very selective when we decide to show it.

  • “That’s it?”
  • “What is this?!”
  • “Can’t you make it bigger?”
  • “Why does it look so boring?”
  • “That’s Mars?”
  • “Why does it look so small?”
  • “Why doesn’t it look red!”
  • “I can’t see anything on it!”
  • “It’s just an orange dot!”
  • “Where are the features?”
  • “Can you see any Martians?”
  • “Oh…”
  • “But it’s so bright!”
  • “What happened to the red?”
The Moon

The moon almost never disappoints, but there are times when the Moon is absolutely stunning, and when it’s too bright and more of a nuisance to view. It simply depends on the phase.

During ANY phase when shadows give definition

  • “Oh wow!”
  • “Oh that’s so close!”
  • “Wow, there’s so many craters!”
  • “beautiful!”
  • “It looks fake!”
  • “This is way clearer than I thought it would be!”
  • “Where is the American Flag?”
  • “Can You Show the American Flag?”
  • “It’s made of cheese, right?”
  • “Doesn’t the moon look better when it’s full?”
  • “Why are you only pointed to the Moon?”

When it’s Full

  • “I thought I’d see more craters”
  • “those rays look cool”
  • “So where is the American Flag?
  • “It’s really bright!”
  • “Your eyes really feel that light!”
  • “Why is it so bright?!”
  • “Am I going to go blind?”

Jupiter always has stuff to check out. The color is obvious at higher magnifications, and the moons are visible even at low power. Jupiter almost never gets a bad reaction, unless people refuse to follow my directions or understand why it may not look as stunning as they thought it would.

  • “Wow!”
  • “That looks really cool!”
  • “I can definitely see the color!”
  • “It almost looks like the picture!”
  • “Those moons are cool!”
  • “I see small orange dot!” (they’re seeing the great red spot)
  • “I can see the rings!” (they’re seeing brown cloud bands, mistaking them for rings)
  • “It’s just a circle?” (person isn’t looking hard enough at the details)
  • “It’s just white?” (again, it’s either being shown during the day, or that person isn’t focusing hard enough)
  • “Can’t you make it bigger?”
  • “Does Jupiter look better at night?” (the person, who is viewing Jupiter while the Sun is still up, just answered his own question!)
  • “What are those four dots?” (the person wasn’t paying attention when I mentioned they’re Jupiter’s moons) 


Love this shot, the telescope, the sign, and the city in the background.

Overall, second only to the Moon, Saturn gets the most positive reactions. Many don’t expect to see the rings as well as they do, and they just assume Saturn will look like a star in the telescope, like it appears to the naked eye. In most cases, Saturn exceeds expectations.

  • “Holy S%^@!”
  • “I can see the rings!”
  • “I didn’t think I could see them that well!”
  • “It looks like an eye”
  • “What is the black space between the white?”
  •  “This looks fake!”
  • ” I can see stripes on the rings!” (the Cassini division) 
  • “Are you sure this isn’t a picture at the front?”
  • “Why does it look white?” (because Saturn is whitish yellow in color!)
  • “Can you make it look bigger?”

It’s always understandable when a novice viewer has never seen the planets through a telescope, and realizes how small they look as seen from Earth. Everyone’s eyes are different, and what may look pristine clear to one viewer may look blurry to someone else (unless it’s simply the atmosphere causing bad seeing conditions.)

Most of the time, people understand they’re not getting pictures from the numerous probes we’ve sent to other planets, nor that of the Hubble, but there are always those whose expectations are not realistic.

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