Clusters Nebulae Galaxies

Large and Small Magellanic Clouds shine in southern skies

Magellanic Clouds: Red aurora on the horizon, fuzzy white band of the Milky Way, and two small, fuzzy, glowing ovals.
A beautiful red aurora australis – or southern lights – on the horizon, captured on January 19, 2013 by EarthSky friend Colin Legg at Wilson’s Promontory in southernmost Australia. You can also see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds in this photo alongside the edgewise view into our Milky Way galaxy. The blue in the water is bioluminescence. Thank you, Colin!

The Magellanic Clouds from the Southern Hemisphere

If you want to see the Magellanic Clouds, you have to head south. They’re not visible north of about 17 degrees north latitude. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you can see these satellite galaxies any night of the year because they’re south circumpolar. In other words, they’re close enough to the South Celestial Pole that they never set.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is one of the closest galaxies to us at about 160,000 light-years away. It’s about 40,000 light-years closer than the Small Magellanic Cloud. As some of the closest galaxies to our home galaxy, they stand out as big, misty blobs of light under dark skies.

Scientists estimate the Small Magellanic Cloud contains around 3 billion stars, while the Large Magellanic Cloud houses some 30 billion stars.

Whitish-blue fuzzy oval in upper right and smaller oval of light at lower left in starfield.
The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They look like smudges on a dark night sky, visible from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. They’re classified as irregular galaxies belonging to our Local Group of galaxies, which also includes our Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy. Image via ESO/ S. Brunier.

The Clouds in myth

In the Southern Hemisphere, Australian Aborigines, the Maori people of New Zealand and the Polynesian people of the South Pacific were familiar with both the Large and Small Clouds. They used them as navigational markers during their oceanic expeditions. They considered these hazy star-clouds predictors of the winds. The website explains:

Many tribes of Australian Aboriginals have ‘dreamtime stories,’ which they have passed down from generation to generation, to explain the universe as they perceive it. One such legend describes the Clouds as the campfires of an old couple, the Jukara. The Jukara relied on other star people to supply them with fish and lily bulbs caught in the Milky Way to survive. The old couple cooked the food over their campfire, which was the star Achernar. The Large Cloud represented the old man while the Small Cloud was the old woman.

Another myth comes from South Africa. The nearby constellation Mensa the Table got its name from South Africa’s Table Mountain. One story says that the Large Magellanic Cloud is a puff of smoke from a pipe-smoking contest held on the mountain.

In history, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, a Persian astronomer, described the Large Magellanic Cloud in his Book of Fixed Stars in 964 CE. He called it Al Bakr, describing it as the White Ox of southern Arabia.

Three dish telescopes under dark starry sky with large puffy white spot at center of sky and smaller one to the upper left.
The night sky from ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds showcased at center. Image via Y. Beletsky/ LCO/ ESO.

Science of the Magellanic Clouds

Henrietta Swan Leavitt – famous for her work on the Cepheid variable stars – studied the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds from Harvard College Observatory in Southern Peru. In the early 1900s, she published her work on variable stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, famously showing the relationship between the periods (cycles) of the stars’ variability and their luminosities. Her study was titled 1777 variables in the Magellanic Clouds. The period-luminosity relationship later became a reliable gauge for astronomers trying to parse the riddle of star and galaxy distances.

Astronomers believe that the Large and Small Clouds formed around the same time as our Milky Way, some 12 to 13 billion years ago. Due to their repeated interaction with our larger Milky Way galaxy, it’s thought that great galactic tides might have caused their irregular shape.

The ongoing Dark Energy Survey found a dark stream of interacting matter between the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Simulations performed by a team of scientists at the University of Arizona suggested that the two galaxies might be interacting with each other and might eventually merge.

Rename the Magellanic Clouds?

The controversy about renaming the Magellanic Clouds is heating up again. It’s been brewing for at least a couple of years. On September 12, 2023, astronomer Mia de los Reyes of Amherst College wrote in an opinion piece in the American Physical Society’s online magazine Physics:

The Milky Way is surrounded by a host of smaller satellite galaxies. The two brightest are known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Both galaxies are visible to the unaided eye, and both have been known for centuries by viewers of the Southern Hemisphere sky.

But the beauty of these starry objects is clouded by their names, which honor a man who was a colonizer, a slaver, and a murderer. Now I and a coalition of astronomers are calling for the scientific community to rename these galaxies …

These two famous Milky Way satellites are named for the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe.

A starry sky with sparse trees in the foreground and two bright, diffuse patches up in the sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Simon Capone in Cosy Corner, Western Australia, captured this panoramic view of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds on April 5, 2022. The Magellanic Clouds are nearby systems thought to behave like galactic satellites, orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy. He wrote “On my recent holiday in the great southern region of Western Australia, I imaged this from the front porch of our cabin at Cozy Corner. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds were clearly visibly in the Bortle 1 sky.” Thank you, Simon!

Why rename the galaxies?

According to Mia de los Reyes and her colleagues, on Magellan’s travels, he killed and enslaved the native peoples he met. De los Reyes wrote:

… Magellan was no astronomer, and he was not the first to document these galaxies. Indigenous peoples across the Southern Hemisphere have names and legends for these systems that predate Magellan by thousands of years.

Some of the previous names and descriptions for the satellite galaxies are beautiful and descriptive. De los Reyes wrote:

… the Mapuche of modern-day Chile and Argentina call them Rvganko, or water ponds, which they think are in the process of drying out. The Kamilaroi of modern-day Australia regard the galaxies as places where people go after death. And the Arimi of modern-day Tanzania see the clouds as a man and a woman who help the Pleiades bring heavy rains during the rainy season.

Read the September 12, 2023, opinion piece by Mia de los Reyes here.

What do you think? Share your opinion in the comments below.

Desert landscape, glowing arch of Milky Way above with two small, fuzzy bright patches near it.
View larger. | In this image from Paranal, Chile, you can see the large swath of our galaxy, the Milky Way. One dwarf satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, is underneath the arch. Another, the Small Magellanic Cloud, is to its lower left. Image via Yuri Beletsky/ ESO.

More from Mia de los Reyes

Furthermore, she wrote:

… Magellan committed horrific acts. A first-hand account of Magellan’s expedition describes how, in what is now known as Argentina, Magellan enslaved the native Tehuelche people. He placed iron manacles on the ‘youngest and best proportioned’ men, telling them that the manacles were gifts. In what became Guam and the Philippines, Magellan and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants.

Despite his actions, Magellan has been – and continues to be – widely honored by the field of astronomy. Magellan’s name currently appears in over 17,000 peer-reviewed academic articles. His name is attached to astronomical objects such as a lunar crater and a Martian crater, both of which are named Magalhaens; the NASA Magellan spacecraft; the twin 6.5-m Magellan telescopes; and most recently, an under construction, next-generation extremely large telescope called the Giant Magellan Telescope. The Magellan telescopes are all located in Chile, a country with a history of violent Spanish conquest. Indeed, Magellan’s ‘discovery’ of the Strait of Magellan allowed Spanish conquistadors to explore Chile’s coast and led to genocidal campaigns against the native Mapuche people.

I and many other astronomers believe that astronomical objects and facilities should not be named after Magellan, or after anyone else with a violent colonialist legacy. We would like the International Astronomical Union – the body in charge of naming astronomical objects – to rename the Magellanic Clouds. We hope other astronomical institutions, particularly the consortia that manage the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, will also revisit the use of Magellan’s name.

Read the September 12, 2023, opinion piece by Mia de los Reyes here.

What do you think? Share your opinion in the comments below.

Very starry sky with a large fuzzy patch and a smaller fuzzy patch to lower left above a road.
The Large Magellanic Cloud spills across the border of Dorado and Mensa. The Small Magellanic Cloud is at lower left. Image via Yuri Beletsky/ LCO/ ESO.

What would we call them?

Writing in Science News on September 26, 2023, senior physics writer Emily Conover explained:

The galaxies have been known scientifically by Magellan’s name since only the end of the 19th century, well after Magellan’s voyage. That’s just a blip in the history of astronomy, the researchers argue.

More than 100 astronomers have expressed interest in the campaign, anchored by a core group of about 50, de los Reyes says. The group aims to bring the proposal to the International Astronomical Union, in hopes of eventually holding a vote on the name change …

The astronomers are now trying out new names. One popular suggestion is to call them the ‘Milky Clouds.’ That would maintain the commonly used acronyms, LMC and SMC.

And, Conover wrote, it would reflect the galaxies’ connection to something much bigger than any one person: our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Read the September 26, 2023, reporting by Emily Conover in Science News, here.

What do you think? Share your opinion in the comments below.

11 dish telescopes in front of starry background with two small, fuzzy, glowing patches in the sky.
View larger. | The night sky over the ALMA telescopes in Chile, with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Image via ESO/ C. Malin.

Bottom line: The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are two of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way. They can be seen without optical aid from southern skies. In September 2023, astronomers again began calling for the clouds to be renamed.

October 3, 2023
Clusters Nebulae Galaxies

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