The night sky is full of wonders, from the moon and stars to distant planets and galaxies. Sadly, as the Earth’s air pollution continues to increase, it’s getting harder and harder to see these amazing sights. However, there are some things in space that we are still able to spot after dark. These include the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy located near the Milky Way.
The Small Magellanic Cloud is actually one of our galaxy’s nearest neighbors, even though it’s 200,000 light-years away. It’s named after Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, and is an irregular galaxy with a diameter of about 7,500 light-years. It contains a central bar structure, which has led some people to believe that it was a barred spiral galaxy at one point, and was disrupted by the Milky Way, changing its shape. The Small Magellanic Cloud is part of the constellation Tucana, and one of the farthest objects that can be seen with the unaided eye.
The galaxy appears as a hazy, glowing patch of light when seen from dark locations, as it has low surface brightness. It forms a pair with the Large Magellanic Cloud, which lies 20 degrees east of it. Astronomers had previously thought that both of these galaxies were orbiting ours, but they’ve recently discovered that they’re moving too fast be bound by the Milky Way’s gravity.
The Small Magellanic Cloud is also part of a group of galaxies called the Local Group. Other galaxies that are also part of this group include the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way, and the Triangulum Galaxy. There are many active X-ray binaries located inside the Small Magellanic Cloud. A couple of astrophysicists, D. S. Mathewson, V. L. Ford and N. Visvanathan, believe that the galaxy may actually be split in two, and named the smaller part the Mini Magellanic Cloud.
The Small Magellanic Cloud is also known as NGC 292. It had been seen and studied by many people other than Magellan. The long list includes Persian astronomer Al Sufi, European, Portuguese, and Dutch sailors. John Frederick William Herschel, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, from Harvard College Observatory, and Ejnar Hertzsprung also spent a lot of time studying the galaxy. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds have been given many names, too, including “the Cape Clouds”, and “Al Bakr” (LMC) and “Nubecula Minor”(SMC).
For more information on this breathtaking object, as well as a view of the galaxy itself, go to http://wise.ssl.berkeley.edu/gallery_SMC.html.