Pigafetta's work not recognised

Image: supplied
Image: supplied

This week, Ian Griffin looks at the Magellanic Clouds.

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin

History can be cruel.

Most of what we know about Ferdinand Magellan's 16th-century circumnavigation of the globe comes from a journal written by the Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta.

It was from the published version of Pigafetta's diary that Europeans first learned the existence of two dim celestial ''clouds'' in the southern sky.

To my mind it seems a great shame that today they bear the moniker of Magellan rather than Pigafetta, who worked so hard to communicate their discovery.

At this time of year, the Magellanic Clouds are high in the southern sky after sunset. That's why, this week, I'd like to invite you to join me on a brief sojourn around the larger of the two clouds.

With the moon reaching last quarter phase next Sunday (December 10), the early part of the night will be the best time to study the large Magellanic cloud (LMC).

While it is easy to see with the unaided eye, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is by far the best way to study the LMC.

As this week's picture shows, the LMC is a galaxy, containing more than 30billion stars. It is so far away from us that the light you see when you look at it, despite travelling at 300,000km every second has taken more than 160,000 years to reach your eyes.

By studying the motions of stars in the LMC, it has been calculated that it is spinning on its axis, taking about 250million years to rotate once.

If you look at the LMC using binoculars, it is very easy to pick out a bright patch of gas which, because it resembles a spider, has been given the name the Tarantula Nebula.

The Tarantula is a place where stars are being created by the gravitational contraction of its vast colourful clouds of dust and gas; in fact there is so much star creation going on that astronomers classify the Tarantula as a starburst region.

There's so much to see in the LMC that it's well worth spending some time scanning its beautiful star clouds.


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