A History of the Magellanic Clouds and How They Got Their Names

The Magellanic Clouds are a pair of dwarf galaxies that are bound to the Milky Way. The Milky Way is slowly consuming them in Borg-like fashion, starting with the gas halo that surrounds both Clouds. They’re visible in the southern sky, and for centuries people have gazed up at them. They’re named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in our current times.

But they weren’t always called that.

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The Milky Way is Already Starting to Digest the Magellanic Clouds, Starting With Their Protective Halos of Hot Gas

Massive galaxies like our Milky Way gain mass by absorbing smaller galaxies. The Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud are irregular dwarf galaxies that are gravitationally bound to the Milky Way. Both the clouds are distorted by the Milky Way’s gravity, and astronomers think that the Milky Way is in the process of digesting both galaxies.

A new study says that process is already happening, and that the Milky Way is enjoying the Magellanic Clouds’ halos of gas as an appetizer, creating a feature called the Magellanic Stream as it eats. It also explains a 50 year old mystery: Why is the Magellanic Stream so massive?

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An Upcoming Impact With the Magellanic Clouds is Already Causing Star Formation in the Milky Way

For some time, astronomers have known that collisions or mergers between galaxies are an integral part of cosmic evolution. In addition to causing galaxies to grow, these mergers also trigger new rounds of star formation as fresh gas and dust are injected into the galaxy. In the future, astronomers estimate that the Milky Way Galaxy will merge with the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds in the meantime.

According to new results obtained by researchers at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) in New York city, the results of our eventual merger with the Magellanic Clouds is already being felt. According to results presented at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week, stars forming in the outskirts of our galaxy could be the result of these dwarf galaxies merging with our own.

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Astronomers Finally Find the Neutron Star Leftover from Supernova 1987A

Astronomers at Cardiff University have done something nobody else has been able to do. A team, led by Dr. Phil Cigan from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, has found the neutron star remnant from the famous supernova SN 1987A. Their evidence ends a 30 year search for the object.

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Astronomers are Continuing to Watch the Shockwaves Expand from Supernova SN1987A, as they Crash Into the Surrounding Interstellar Medium

When stars reach the end of their life cycle, many will blow off their outer layers in an explosive process known as a supernova. While astronomers have learned much about this phenomena, thanks to sophisticated instruments that are able to study them in multiple wavelengths, there is still a great deal that we don’t know about supernovae and their remnants.

For example, there are still unresolved questions about the mechanisms that power the resulting shock waves from a supernova. However, an international team of researchers recently used data obtained by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory of a nearby supernova (SN1987A) and new simulations to measure the temperature of the atoms in the resulting shock wave.

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One Bonus From the Gaia Data Release: the Rotation of the Large Magellanic Cloud

On December 19th, 2013, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft took to space with for a very ambitious mission. Over the course of its planned 5-year mission (which was recently extended), this space observatory would map over a billion stars, planets, comets, asteroids and quasars in order to create the largest and most precise 3D catalog of the Milky Way ever created.

Since that time, the ESA has made two data releases that cover the first three years of the Gaia mission. The second data release, which took on April 25th, 2018, has already proven to be a treasure trove for astronomers. In addition to the positions, distance indicators and motions of over a billion stars and celestial objects in the Milky Way Galaxy, it also contained a hidden gem – the proper motions of stars within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

Located about 200,000 light-years from Earth, the LMC has dense clouds of dust that results in it experiencing high rates of star formation. In addition, it’s central bar is warped (where the east and west ends are nearer to the Milky Way), suggesting that it was once a barred dwarf spiral galaxy who’s spiral arms were disrupted by interaction with the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) and the Milky Way.

The proper motions of the stars in the LMC, as captured by the Gaia spacecraft (without color). Copyright: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

For these reasons, astronomers have been hoping to derive the orbits of dwarf galaxies (and globular clusters) that revolve around the Milky Way. In so doing, they hope to learn more about how our galaxy evolved due to mergers with clusters and other galaxies. By determining the proper motions of the LMC’s stars, the Gaia mission has provided clues as to how the Milky Way and its largest satellite galaxy have interacted over time.

As you can see from the image (at top), the bar of the LMC is outlined in great detail, along with individual star-forming regions like the Tarantula Nebula (aka. 30 Doradus, which is visible just above the center of the galaxy). The image combines the total amount of radiation detected by the observatory in each pixel. The radiation measurements were then taken through different filters on the spacecraft to generate color information.

This allowed Gaia to obtain information about the total density of stars within the LMC as well as their proper motions. As you can see, the image is dominated by the brightest, most massive stars, which greatly outshine their fainter, lower-mass counterparts. The proper motions of the stars observed is represented as the texture of the image – which looks a lot like a fingerprint.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of the nearest galaxies to our Milky Way, as viewed by ESA’s Gaia satellite using information from the mission’s second data release. Copyright ESA/Gaia/DPAC

From this, scientists were able to see an imprint of the stars rotating clockwise around the center of the galaxy. Using this information, astronomers will be able to create new models on how the LMC, SMC, and Milky Way evolved together over time. This, in turn, could shed light on how galaxies like our own, formed and evolved over the course of billions of years.

As with other information contained in the first and second data releases, this latest discovery demonstrates that the Gaia mission is fulfilling its intended purpose. The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year).

And be sure to enjoy this animated view of the LMC’s rotation, courtesy of the ESA:

Further Reading: ESA

Gaia Looks Beyond our Galaxy to Other Islands of Stars

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia mission is an ambitious project. Having launched in December of 2013, the purpose of this space observatory has been to measure the position and distances of 1 billion objects – including stars, extra-solar planets, comets, asteroids and even quasars. From this, astronomers hope to create the most detailed 3D space catalog of the cosmos ever made.

Back in 2016, the first batch of Gaia data (based on its first 14 months in space) was released. Since then, scientists have been poring over the raw data to obtain clearer images of the neighboring stars and galaxies that were studied by the mission. The latest images to be released, based on Gaia data, included revealing pictures of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), the Andromeda galaxy, and the Triangulum galaxy.

The first catalog of Gaia data consisted of information on 1.142 billion stars, including their precise position in the night sky and their respective brightness. Most of these stars are located in the Milky Way, but a good fraction were from galaxies beyond ours, which included about ten million belonging to the LMC. This satellite galaxy, located about 166 000 light-years away, has about 1/100th the mass of the Milky Way.

Gaia’s view of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Click here for further details, full credits, and larger versions of the image. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

The two images shown above display composite data obtained by the Gaia probe. The image on the left, which was compiled by mapping the total density of stars detected by Gaia, shows the large-scale distribution of stars in the LMC. This image also delineates the extent of the LMC’s spiral arms, and is peppered with bright dots that represent faint clusters of stars.

The image on the right, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of the LMC and its stars. This image was created by mapping radiation flux in the LMC and is dominated by the brightest and most massive stars. This allows the bar of the LMC to be more clearly defined and also shows individual regions of star-formation – like 30 Doradus, which is visible just above the center of the galaxy in the picture.

The next set of images (shown below), which were also obtained using data from the first 14 months of the Gaia mission, depict two nearby spiral galaxies – the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and its neighbor, the Triangulum galaxy (M33). The Andromeda galaxy, located 2.5 million light-years away, is the largest galaxy in our vicinity and slightly more massive than our own. It is also destined to merge with the Milky Way in roughly 4 billion years.

The Triangulum galaxy, meanwhile, is a fraction the size of the Milky Way (with an estimated fifty billion stars) and is located slightly farther from us than Andromeda – about 2.8 million light-years distant. As with the LMC images, the images on the left are based on the total density of stars and show stars of all types, while images on the right are based on the radiation flux of each galaxy and mainly show the bright end of the stellar population.

Gaia’s view of the Andromeda galaxy. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

Another benefit of the images on the right is that they indicate the regions where the most intense star formation is taking place. For many years, astronomers have known that the LMC boasts a significant amount of star-forming activity, forming stars at five times the rate of the Milky Way Galaxy. Andromeda, meanwhile, has reached a point of near-inactivity in the past 2 billion years when it comes to star formation.

In comparison, the Triangulum Galaxy still shows signs of star formation, at a rate that is about four and a half times that of Andromeda. Thanks to the Gaia images, which indicate the relative rates of star formation from elevated levels of radiation flux and brightness, these differences between Andromeda, Triangulum and the LMC is illustrated quite beautifully.

What’s more, by analyzing the motions of individual stars in external galaxies like the LMC, Andromeda, or Triangulum, it will be possible to learn more about the overall rotation of stars within these galaxies. It will also be possible to determine the orbits of the galaxies themselves, which are all part of the larger structure known as the Local Group.

This region of space, which the Milky Way is part of, measures roughly 10 million light-years across and has an estimated 1.29 billion Solar masses. This, in turn, is just one of several collections of galaxies in the even larger Virgo Supercluster. Measuring how stars and galaxies orbit about these larger structures is key to determining cosmic evolution, how the Universe came to be as it is today and where it is heading.

The Triangulum galaxy (M33), based on data compiled by the Gaia mission. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

An international team of astronomers recently attempted to do just that using the CosmicFlows surveys. These studies, which were conducted between 2011 and 2016, calculated the distance and speed of neighboring galaxies. By pairing this data with other distance estimates and data on the galaxies gravity fields, they were able to chart the motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light years over the course of the past 13 billion years.

In the case of the LMC, another team of astronomers recently attempted to measure its orbit using a subset of data from the first Gaia release – the Tycho–Gaia Astrometric Solution (TGAS). Combined with additional parallax and proper motion data from the Hipparcos mission, the team was able to identify 29 stars in the LMC and measure their proper motion, which they then used to estimate the rotation of the galaxy.

Gaia’s observations of the LMC and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are also important when it comes to studying Cepheid and RR Lyrae variables. For years, astronomers have indicated that these stars could be used as indicators of cosmic distances for galaxies beyond our own. In addition, astronomers working at the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC) tested this method on hundreds of LMC variable stars in order to validate data from the first release.

Astronomers are eagerly awaiting the second release of Gaia data, which is scheduled for April of 2018. This will also contain measurements on stellar distances and their motions across the sky, and is expected to reveal even more about our galaxy and its neighbors. But in the meantime, there are still plenty of revelations to be found from the first release, and scientists expect to be busy with it for many years to come.

Further Reading: ESA

The Magellenic Clouds Stay Connected By A String Of Stars

This image shows the two "bridges" that connect the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The white line traces the bridge of stars that flows between the two dwarf galaxies, and the blue line shows the gas. Image: V. Belokurov, D. Erkal and A. Mellinger

Astronomers have finally observed something that was predicted but never seen: a stream of stars connecting the two Magellanic Clouds. In doing so, they began to unravel the mystery surrounding the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). And that required the extraordinary power of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia Observatory to do it.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are dwarf galaxies to the Milky Way. The team of astronomers, led by a group at the University of Cambridge, focused on the clouds and on one particular type of very old star: RR Lyrae. RR Lyrae stars are pulsating stars that have been around since the early days of the Clouds. The Clouds have been difficult to study because they sprawl widely, but Gaia’s unique all-sky view has made this easier.

Small and Large Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo

The Mystery: Mass

The Magellanic Clouds are a bit of a mystery. Astronomers want to know if our conventional theory of galaxy formation applies to them. To find out, they need to know when the Clouds first approached the Milky Way, and what their mass was at that time. The Cambridge team has uncovered some clues to help solve this mystery.

The team used Gaia to detect RR Lyrae stars, which allowed them to trace the extent of the LMC, something that has been difficult to do until Gaia came along. They found a low-luminosity halo around the LMC that stretched as far as 20 degrees. For the LMC to hold onto stars that far away means it would have to be much more massive than previously thought. In fact, the LMC might have as much as 10 percent of the mass that the Milky Way has.

The Large Magellanic Cloud. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57110

The Arrival of the Magellanic Clouds

That helped astronomers answer the mass question, but to really understand the LMC and SMC, they needed to know when the clouds arrived at the Milky Way. But tracking the orbit of a satellite galaxy is impossible. They move so slowly that a human lifetime is a tiny blip compared to them. This makes their orbit essentially unobservable.

But astronomers were able to find the next best thing: the often predicted but never observed stellar stream, or bridge of stars, stretching between the two clouds.

A star stream forms when a satellite galaxy feels the gravitational pull of another body. In this case, the gravitational pull of the LMC allowed individual stars to leave the SMC and be pulled toward the LMC. The stars don’t leave at once, they leave individually over time, forming a stream, or bridge, between the two bodies. This action leaves a luminous tracing of their path over time.

The astronomers behind this study think that the bridge actually has two components: stars stripped from the SMC by the LMC, and stars stripped from the LMC by the Milky Way. This bridge of RR Lyrae stars helps them understand the history of the interactions between all three bodies.

A Bridge of Stars… and Gas

The most recent interaction between the Clouds was about 200 million years ago. At that time, the Clouds passed close by each other. This action formed not one, but two bridges: one of stars and one of gas. By measuring the offset between the star bridge and the gas bridge, they hope to narrow down the density of the corona of gas surrounding the Milky Way.

Mystery #2: The Milky Way’s Corona

The density of the Milky Way’s Galactic Corona is the second mystery that astronomers hope to solve using the Gaia Observatory.

The Galactic Corona is made up of ionised gas at very low density. This makes it very difficult to observe. But astronomers have been scrutinizing it intensely because they think the corona might harbor most of the missing baryonic matter. Everybody has heard of Dark Matter, the matter that makes up 95% of the matter in the universe. Dark Matter is something other than the normal matter that makes up familiar things like stars, planets, and us.

The other 5% of matter is baryonic matter, the familiar atoms that we all learn about. But we can only account for half of the 5% of baryonic matter that we think has to exist. The rest is called the missing baryonic matter, and astronomers think it’s probably in the galactic corona, but they’ve been unable to measure it.

A part of the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy is dazzling in this image from NASA’s Great Observatories. The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light-years way from our own Milky Way spiral galaxy. Credit: NASA.

Understanding the density of the Galactic Corona feeds back into understanding the Magellanic Clouds and their history. That’s because the bridges of stars and gas that formed between the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds initially moved at the same speed. But as they approached the Milky Way’s corona, the corona exerted drag on the stars and the gas. Because the stars are small and dense relative to the gas, they travelled through the corona with no change in their velocity.

But the gas behaved differently. The gas was largely neutral hydrogen, and very diffuse, and its encounter with the Milky Way’s corona slowed it down considerably. This created the offset between the two streams.

Eureka?

The team compared the current locations of the streams of gas and stars. By taking into account the density of the gas, and also how long both Clouds have been in the corona, they could then estimate the density of the corona itself.

When they did so, their results showed that the missing baryonic matter could be accounted for in the corona. Or at least a significant fraction of it could. So what’s the end result of all this work?

It looks like all this work confirms that both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds conform to our conventional theory of galaxy formation.

Mystery solved. Way to go, science.

What is the Closest Galaxy to the Milky Way?

Scientists have known for some time that the Milky Way Galaxy is not alone in the Universe. In addition to our galaxy being part of the Local Group – a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies – we are also part of the larger formation known as the Virgo Supercluster. So you could say the Milky Way has a lot of neighbors.

Of these, most people consider the Andromeda Galaxy to be our closest galactic cohabitant. But in truth, Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy, and not the closest galaxy by a long shot. This distinction falls to a formation that is actually within the Milky Way itself, a dwarf galaxy that we’ve only known about for a little over a decade.

Closest Galaxy:

At present, the closet known galaxy to the Milky Way is the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy – aka. the Canis Major Overdensity. This stellar formation is about 42,000 light years from the galactic center, and a mere 25,000 light years from our Solar System. This puts it closer to us than the center of our own galaxy, which is 30,000 light years away from the Solar System.

Illustration of the Canis Dwarf Dwarf Galaxy, Credit: R. Ibata (Strasbourg Observatory, ULP) et al./2MASS/NASA
Illustration of the Canis Dwarf Galaxy and its associated tidal (shown in red) in relation to our Milky Way. Credit: R. Ibata (Strasbourg Observatory, ULP) et al./2MASS/NASA

Characteristics:

The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy Dwarf Galaxy is believed to contain one billion stars in all, a relatively high-percentage of which are in the Red Giant Branch phase of their lifetimes. It has a roughly elliptical shape and is thought to contain as many stars as the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, the previous contender for closest galaxy to our location in the Milky Way.

In addition to the dwarf galaxy itself, a long filament of stars is visible trailing behind it. This complex, ringlike structure – which is sometimes referred to as the Monoceros Ring – wraps around the galaxy three times. The stream was first discovered in the early 21st century by astronomers conducting the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

It was in the course of investigating this ring of stars, and a closely spaced group of globular clusters similar to those associated with the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, that the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy was first discovered. The current theory is that this galaxy was accreted (or swallowed up) by the Milky Way Galaxy.

Other globular clusters that orbit the center of our Milky Way as a satellite – i.e. NGC 1851, NGC 1904, NGC 2298 and NGC 2808 – are thought to have been part of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy before its accretion. It also has associated open clusters, which are thought to have formed as a result of the dwarf galaxy’s gravity perturbing material in the galactic disk and stimulating star formation.

Images of a few examples of merging galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/A. Evans/NRAO/Caltech

Discovery:

Prior to its discovery, astronomers believed that the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy was the closest galactic formation to our own. At 70,000 light years from Earth, this galaxy was determined in 1994 to be closer to us than the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), the irregular dwarf galaxy that is located 180,000 light years from Earth, and which previously held the title of the closest galaxy to the Milky Way.

All of that changed in 2003 when The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy was discovered by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS). This collaborative astronomical mission, which took place between 1997 and 2001, relied on data obtained by the Mt. Hopkins Observatory in Arizona (for the Northern Hemisphere) and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (for the southern hemisphere).

From this data, astronomers were able to conduct a survey of 70% of the sky, detecting about 5,700 celestial sources of infrared radiation. Infrared astronomy takes advantage of advances in astronomy that see more of the Universe, since infrared light is not blocked by gas and dust to the same extent as visible light.

Because of this technique, the astronomers were able to detect a very significant over-density of class M giant stars in a part of the sky occupied by the Canis Major constellation, along with several other related structures composed of this type of star, two of which form broad, faint arcs (as seen in the image close to the top).

An artist depicts the incredibly powerful flare that erupted from the red dwarf star EV Lacertae. Credit: Casey Reed/NASA
An artist depicts the incredibly powerful flare that erupted from the red dwarf star EV Lacertae. Credit: Casey Reed/NASA

The prevalence of M-class stars is what made the formation easy to detect. These cool, “Red Dwarfs” are not very luminous compared to other classes of stars, and cannot even be seen with the naked eye. However, they shine very brightly in the infrared, and appeared in great numbers.

The discovery of this galaxy, and subsequent analysis of the stars associated with it, has provided some support for the current theory that galaxies may grow in size by swallowing their smaller neighbors. The Milky Way became the size it is now by eating up other galaxies like Canis Major, and it continues to do so today. And since stars from the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy are technically already part of the Milky Way, it is by definition the nearest galaxy to us.

As already noted, it was the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy that held the position of closest galaxy to our own prior to 2003. At 75,000 light years away. This dwarf galaxy, which consists of four globular clusters that measure some 10,000 light-years in diameter, was discovered in 1994. Prior to that, the Large Magellanic Cloud was thought to be our closest neighbor.

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is the closest spiral galaxy to us, and though it’s gravitationally bound to the Milky Way, it’s not the closest galaxy by far – being 2 million light years away. Andromeda is currently approaching our galaxy at a speed of about 110 kilometers per second. In roughly 4 billion years, the Andromeda Galaxy is expected to merge with out own, forming a single, super-galaxy.

Future of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy:

Astronomers also believe that the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is in the process of being pulled apart by the gravitational field of the more massive Milky Way Galaxy. The main body of the galaxy is already extremely degraded, a process which will continue as it travels around and through our Galaxy.

In time, the accretion process will likely culminate with the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy merging entirely with the Milky Way, thus depositing its 1 billion stars to the 200 t0 400 billion that are already part of our galaxy.

We have written many interesting articles on galaxies here at Universe Today. Here’s Closest Galaxy Discovered, How did the Milky Way Form?, How Many Galaxies are there in the Universe?, What is the Milky Way Collision, Spiral Galaxies Could eat Dwarfs all over the Universe and The Canis Major Constellation.

For more information, check out this article from the Spitzer Space Telescope‘s website about the galaxies that are closest to the Milky Way Galaxy. And here is a video by the same author on the subject.

Astronomy Cast has some interesting episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 97: Galaxies and Episode 99: The Milky Way.

Sources:

What are Magellanic Clouds?

Since ancient times, human beings have been staring at the night sky and been amazed by the celestial objects looking back at them. Whereas these objects were once thought to be divine in nature, and later mistaken for comets or other astrological phenomena, ongoing observation and improvements in instrumentation have led to these objects being identified for what they are.

For example, there are the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, two large clouds of stars and gas that can be seen with the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. Located at a distance of 200,000 and 160,000 light years from the Milky Way Galaxy (respectively), the true nature of these objects has only been understand for about a century. And yet, these objects still have some mysteries that have yet to be solved.

Characteristics:

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the neighboring the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are starry regions that orbit our galaxy, and look conspicuously like detached pieces of the Milky Way. Though they are separated by 21 degrees in the  night sky – about 42 times the width of the full moon – their true distance is about 75,000 light-years from each other.

An ultraviolet view of the Large Magellanic Cloud from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. Almost 1 million ultraviolet sources are visible in the image, which took 5.4 days of cumulative exposure to do. The wavelengths of UV shown in this picture are mostly blocked on Earth's surface. Credit: NASA/Swift/S. Immler (Goddard) and M. Siegel (Penn State)
Ultraviolet view of the Large Magellanic Cloud from Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. Credit: NASA/Swift/S. Immler (Goddard) and M. Siegel (Penn State)

The Large Magellanic Cloud is located about 160,000 light-years from the Milky Way, in the constellation Dorado. This makes it the 3rd closest galaxy to us, behind the Sagittarius Dwarf and Canis Major Dwarf galaxies. Meanwhile, the Small Magellanic Cloud is located in the constellation of Tucana, about 200,000 light-years away.

The LMC is roughly twice the diameter of the SMC, measuring some 14,000 light-years across vs. 7,000 light years (compared to 100,000 light years for the Milky Way). This makes it the 4th largest galaxy in our Local Group of galaxies, after the Milky Way, Andromeda and the Triangulum Galaxy. The LMC is about 10 billion times as massive as our Sun (about a tenth the mass of the Milky Way), while the SMC is equivalent to about 7 billion Solar Masses.

In terms of structure, astronomers have classified the LMC as an irregular type galaxy, but it does have a very prominent bar in its center. Ergo, it’s possible that it was a barred spiral before its gravitational interactions with the Milky Way. The SMC also contains a central bar structure and it is speculated that it too was once a barred spiral galaxy that was disrupted by the Milky Way to become somewhat irregular.

Aside from their different structure and lower mass, they differ from our galaxy in two major ways. First, they are gas-rich – meaning that a higher fraction of their mass is hydrogen and helium – and they have poor metallicity, (meaning their stars are less metal-rich than the Milky Way’s). Both possess nebulae and young stellar populations, but are made up of stars that range from very young to the very old.

The Small Magellanic Cloud as seen by Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. This composite of 656 separate pictures has a cumulative exposure time of 1.8 days. Credit: NASA/Swift/S. Immler (Goddard) and M. Siegel (Penn State)
The Small Magellanic Cloud as seen by Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. This composite of 656 separate pictures has a cumulative exposure time of 1.8 days. Credit: NASA/Swift/S. Immler (Goddard) and M. Siegel (Penn State)

In fact, this abundance in gas is what ensures that the Magellanic Clouds are able to create new stars, with some being only a few hundred million years in age. This is especially true of the LMC, which produces new stars in large quantities. A good example of this is it’s glowing-red Tarantula Nebula, a gigantic star-forming region that lies 160,000 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers estimate that the Magellanic Clouds were formed approximately 13 billion years ago, around the same time as the Milky Way Galaxy. It has also been believed for some time that the Magellanic Clouds have been orbiting the Milky Way at close to their current distances. However, observational and theoretical evidence suggests that the clouds have been greatly distorted by tidal interactions with the Milky Way as they travel close to it.

This indicates that they are not likely to have frequently got as close to the Milky Way as they are now. For instance, measurements conducted with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006 suggested that the Magellanic Clouds may be moving too fast to be long terms companions of the Milky Way. In fact, their eccentric orbits around the Milky Way would seem to indicate that they came close to our galaxy only once since the universe began.

Small and Large Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo
The Small and Large Magellanic Clouds visible over the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo

This was followed in 2010 by a study that indicated that the Magellanic Clouds may be passing clouds that were likely expelled from the Andromeda Galaxy in the past. The interactions between the Magellanic Clouds and the Milky Way is evidenced by their structure and the streams of neutral hydrogen that connects them. Their gravity has affected the Milky Way as well, distorting the outer parts of the galactic disk.

History of Observation:

In the southern hemisphere, the Magellanic clouds were a part of the lore and mythology of the native inhabitants, including the Australian Aborigines, the Maori of New Zealand, and the Polynesian people of the South Pacific. For the latter, they served as important navigational markers, while the Maori used them as predictors of the winds.

While the study Magellanic Clouds dates back to the 1st millennium BCE, the earliest surviving record comes from the 10th century Persian astronomer Al Sufi. In his 964 treatise, Book of Fixed Stars, he called the LMC al-Bakr (“the Sheep”) “of the southern Arabs”. He also noted that the Cloud is not visible from northern Arabia or Baghdad, but could be seen at the southernmost tip of Arabian Peninsula.

By the late 15th century, Europeans are believed to have become acquainted with the Magellanic Clouds thanks to exploration and trade missions that took them south of the equator. For instance, Portuguese and Dutch sailors came to know them as the Cape Clouds, since they could only be viewed when sailing around Cape Horn (South America) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Panoramic Large and Small Magellanic Clouds as seen from ESO's VLT observation site. The galaxies are on the left side of the image. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky
Panoramic view of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds above the ESO’s VLT observation site in Chile. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

During the circumnavigation of the Earth by Ferdinand Magellan (1519–22), the Magellanic Clouds were described by Venetian Antonio Pigafetta (Magellan’s chronicler) as dim clusters of stars. In 1603, German celestial cartographer Johann Bayer published his celestial atlas Uranometria, where he named the smaller cloud “Nebecula Minor” (Latin for “Little Cloud”).

Between 1834 and 1838, English astronomer John Herschel conducted surveys of the southern skies from the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. While observing the SMC, he described it as a cloudy mass of light with an oval shape and a bright center, and catalogued a concentration of 37 nebulae and clusters within it.

In 1891, the Harvard College Observatory opened an observing station in southern Peru. From 1893-1906, astronomers used the observatory’s 61 cm (24 inch) telescope to survey and photograph the LMC and SMC. One such astronomers was Henriette Swan Leavitt, who used the observatory to discover Cephied Variable stars in the SMC.

Her findings were published in 1908 a study titled “1777 variables in the Magellanic Clouds“, in which she showed the relationship between these star’s variability period and luminosity – which became a very reliable means of determining distance. This allowed the SMCs distance to be determined, and became the standard method of measuring the distance to other galaxies in the coming decades.

Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team)
Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis, a Cepheid Variable located in the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

As noted already, in 2006, measurements made suing the Hubble Space Telescope were announced that suggested the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds may be moving too fast to be orbiting the Milky Way. This has given rise to the theory that they originated in another galaxy, most likely Andromeda, and were kicked out during a galactic merger.

Given their composition, these clouds – especially the LMC – will continue making new stars for some time to come. And eventually, millions of years from now, these clouds may merge with our own Milky Way Galaxy. Or, they could keep orbiting us, passing close enough to suck up hydrogen and keep their star-forming process going.

But in a few billion years, when the Andromeda Galaxy collides with our own, they may find themselves having no choice but to merge with the giant galaxy that results. One might say Andromeda regrets spitting them out, and is coming to collect them!

We have written many articles about the Magellanic Clouds for Universe Today. Here’s What is the Small Magellanic Cloud?, What is the Large Magellanic Cloud?, Stolen: Magellanic Clouds – Return to Andromeda, The Magellanic Clouds are Here for the First Time.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies – Episode 97: Galaxies.

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