The small cloud of Magellan

The moon is new on Friday just before 10pm which means that we are entering prime time for stargazing, writes Ian Griffin.

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin

For the third time in three months, I will be spending this ''dark of the moon'' period at the University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory above Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie Country, and I have to say that I am really looking forward to it.

One of the objects I intend to study in some detail during my stay at Mount John, is the Small Magellanic Cloud or SMC, which, once darkness falls, is easily visible away from light-polluted sites as a fuzzy patch of light in the southern sky.

At a distance of approximately 200,000 light years, the SMC is one of the most distant objects you can see with your unaided eye. I

find it quite thought-provoking that even though it travels at 300,000km every second, the light I see when contemplating the SMC began its journey across the cosmos at just about the same time as the first humans emerged in Africa.

Despite its name, the SMC actually covers quite a large area of sky. With an area of

14 square degrees, it is roughly 18 times larger than the apparent size of the moon.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is actually a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way. It is around 7000 light-years across, and astronomers estimate that it contains several hundred million stars.

If you have access to a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, it is well worth taking time to use them to study the SMC and its surroundings, since they are teeming with clouds of dust and gas and there's also a plethora of beautiful star clusters. Less than two degrees away from the SMC (and easily visible with binoculars) is the globular cluster which astronomers call 47 Tucanae.

This fuzzy spherical ball of more than a million stars is one of the most beautiful objects in our southern sky, and I strongly encourage you to try to find it.

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