The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 40,000 light-years closer than the Small Magellanic Cloud and more than 2 million light-years closer than the Andromeda galaxy. The Magellanic Clouds were visible to early peoples in the southern hemisphere. Petroglyphs and rock drawings in Chile are the earliest preserved representations of them, and they’re mentioned in ancient Islamic texts, too.
Ferdinand Magellan is most well-known for being the first European to discover a sailing route to the Spice Islands by sailing East. That voyage began in 1519, 500 years ago, and resulted in the first circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan was killed in battle during the long voyage and never returned to Europe. Magellan’s name was also given to the two dwarf galaxies, also to honor him. But not at first. It took a while before they bore his name.
Australian Aboriginal storytellers relate that the Large Magellanic Cloud is the campsite of an old man, whereas the Small Magellanic Cloud is the campsite of his wife. The couple, known jointly as Jukara, had grown too old to feed themselves, so other star beings bring them fish from the sky river we know as the Milky Way.
For observers south of about 20 degrees south latitude, the Large Magellanic Cloud is circumpolar, meaning that it can be seen (at least in part) all night every night of the year, weather permitting. It is approximately on the border between the constellations Dorado and Mensa in a region of faint stars. It covers an area of sky about 9 by 11 degrees, and shines with a total integrated magnitude of approximately zero.
Southern Hemisphere stargazers can see four galaxies without binoculars or a telescope. The Small Magellanic Cloud, the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Andromeda galaxy and our home galaxy, the Milky Way. The Large Magellanic Cloud appears as a free-floating dusty patch or random cloud in a quiet region of the sky.
Its shape suggests a transitional form between a small spiral galaxy and an irregular galaxy. About 30,000 light-years across in the longest dimension, it appears from Earth more than 20 times the width of a full moon.
If all of its light were concentrated in a starlike pinpoint, it would be one of the brightest stars in the heavens. However, since the light is spread over nearly 100 square degrees, it appears only as a faint smudge.
The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is an important target in the effort to understand the stellar populations of galaxies. Due to its close proximity, favorable viewing angle, and ongoing star formation activity. Detailed examination of the LMC’s stellar content began in the 1960s with much of it focused on the star cluster population.
Hodge (1960, 1961) surveyed populous clusters in the LMC, finding that while 35 of the clusters are similar in age to the population of globular clusters in the Milky Way, the LMC contains 23 populous clusters that are clearly much younger than any Milky Way globular cluster.
Although there is some uncertainty due to various methods of distance determination, the best current estimate puts the Large Magellanic Cloud at 150,000 to about 160,000 light-years away, or about five or six times as far from Earth as Earth is from the center of the Milky Way. Other estimates have it as far as 180,000 light-years.
Most of the reason why we care about the Magellanic Clouds is that they are incredible grounds for understanding the processes that govern the formation of galaxies. “Moving one peak of the star formation history might constrain interactions with the galaxies and other astronomical objects,” says Mazzi.