The Magellanic Clouds

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has two satellite galaxies in orbit about it. They don’t look like the typical pinwheel, or spiral, images of galaxies we are familiar with. The satellite galaxies look like clouds, and they have come to be known as the Magellanic Clouds, named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. While in the Southern Hemisphere during Magellan’s first trip around the world, from 1519 to 1522, he and the crew observed these celestial objects. However, the Indigenous peoples in the Southern Hemisphere had been observing them for thousands of years. They are known simply as the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). They can only be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, and you don’t need binoculars to see them! Scientists think that the SMC is actually orbiting the LMC.

The bright object to the left of the Small Magellanic Cloud is a globular star cluster in our own galaxy. The star cluster is called 47 Tucanae. Credit: ESO/S. Brunier – ESO, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7668531

The Magellanic Clouds are among the closest galaxies to the Milky Way: The LMC is about 160,000 light years away from us, and the SMC is farther, about 190,000 years away. (The closest galaxy is the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, at 65,230 light years.) They are about 75,000 light years apart. Recall that a light year is the distance that light travels in one year, about 9.7 trillion kilometres. They are a lot smaller than the Milky Way, too. The Milky Way is about 20 times the diameter of the SMC, and about 10 times the diameter of the LMC.

This manipulated image shows where the Magellanic Clouds are in relation to the Milky Way. If we could look down on everything from above, this is what we would see. Credit: Nina McCurdy / Nick Risinger / NASA. Not to scale.

Because of their loosely defined shape and their size, the Magellanic Clouds are classified as irregular dwarf galaxies. The Milky Way is classified as a spiral galaxy. Another galaxy shape is elliptical. There are further subclassifications.

While the Magellanic Clouds are thought to have been formed at the same time as our own galaxy, about 14 billion years ago, they have only been in orbit around the Milky Way for about 1.5 billion years. The Milky Way’s gravity would have “captured” the two galaxies. In fact, for the clouds to orbit the Milky Way, it would take about 4 billion years. Since they have only been in orbit for 1.5 billion years, we might be seeing them after their initial capture. They may not have even made one complete orbit yet.

Further, there are gravitational, or tidal, forces at work, that result in a lot of tugging and pulling between the two clouds and between the clouds and the Milky Way. Scientists think the LMC-SMC system could be on a collision course with the Milky Way, although the collision won’t happen for another 2.4 billion years. The collision could disturb the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, causing it to consume more gas and other matter and increase in size. Stars closer to the black hole could get kicked out of the galaxy.

So, if something is classified as a galaxy, does it automatically have the same composition as all other galaxies? Nope. Apart from shape and size, the Magellanic Clouds differ in two more important ways from the Milky Way: the clouds have more hydrogen and helium than our home galaxy does, but less metal. There is a similarity, though: the Magellanic Clouds and the Milky Way both contain a range of very young stars to very old stars. This points to a long history of stellar formation.

In February 1987, Canadian astronomer Ian Shelton discovered a supernova in the LMC from the University of Toronto observatory in Chile. This is the closest supernova visible for study since the invention of the telescope. Astronomers continue to observe the supernova remnant with ground-based telescopes and telescopes in space.