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See the bright Comet Leonard near Venus in the night sky tonight!

A diagram showing the locations of Venus and Comet Leonard at 5:30 p.m. local time from New York City on Dec. 17, 2021. (Image credit: Starry Night)

Skywatchers will be treated to a cosmic duet tonight (Dec. 17), as the brightest comet of 2021 and the brightest planet pair up for a night sky double feature. 

Comet Leonard, also known as Comet C/2021 A1, will be visible from the Northern Hemisphere as it passes near the planet Venus — sometimes referred to as the "evening star." The comet can be seen shortly after the sun goes down in the southwest sky, very low above the horizon. 

The comet will be located near Venus, making its closest approach to the bright planet tonight at 9:08 p.m. EST (Dec. 18 at 0208 GMT). The comet is expected to travel within 2.6 million miles (4.2 million kilometers) of Venus. By comparison, the bright comet made its closest approach to Earth on Dec. 12, passing within a distance of about 21 million miles (34 million kilometers). Given Venus' brightness and prominence in the night sky, the planet may help skywatchers locate Comet Leonard, according to EarthSky

Related: Want to see Comet Leonard? Here are telescope and binoculars recommendations

Under clear, dark skies, you can observe Venus with your unaided eye, but to get a good view of Comet Leonard, you'll want to use binoculars or a telescope. The pair will also be close together Saturday evening (Dec. 18) if weather doesn't cooperate today.

If you're looking for binoculars or a telescope to see planets or other objects in the night sky, check out our guide for the best binoculars deals of 2021 and the best telescope deals now. If you want to capture the moment and need equipment, consider our best cameras for astrophotography guide and best lenses for astrophotography to make sure you're ready to photograph the night sky. 

Soon after its Venus flyby, Comet C/2021 A1 — discovered by and named for astronomer Greg Leonard in January 2021 — will continue on its tour of the inner solar system. The comet is expected to make its closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, on Jan. 3 at a distance of 57.2 million miles (92 million km), at which point it will be lost to our view on Earth. 

A diagram showing the positions of Venus and Comet Leonard in the sky around 5:30 p.m. local time from New York City on Dec. 18, 2021. (Image credit: Starry Night)

"This is the last time we are going to see the comet," Leonard said in a statement from the University of Arizona. "It's speeding along at escape velocity, 44 miles [71 km] per second. After its slingshot around the sun, it will be ejected from our solar system, and it may stumble into another star system millions of years from now."

Despite its incredible speed, the comet will actually appear to be moving very slowly across the night sky, due to its distance from Earth. The comet may also brighten as it heads toward the sun, which warms the icy body, releasing glowing, ionized gas. 

"Comets are typically brightest around perihelion, and the comet has been brightening and is still getting brighter," according to EarthSky. "And, as recent activity shows, there's always the possibility of brightness outbursts as Comet Leonard draws nearer and nearer the sun." 

As you look up at the night sky for Venus and Comet Leonard this weekend, keep an eye out for December's full Cold Moon, which rises on Saturday, Dec. 18 at 11:36 p.m. EST (Dec. 19 at 0426 GMT). Even to the casual stargazer, the moon will appear full the night before and after its peak. 

Editor's Note: If you snap an amazing comet or night sky picture and would like to share it with Space.com readers, send your photos, comments, and your name and location to spacephotos@space.com.

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.