TechAstronomers have had enough of Magellanic Clouds. They demand a rename

Astronomers have had enough of Magellanic Clouds. They demand a rename

The Large Magellanic Cloud through the lens of the Hubble Telescope
The Large Magellanic Cloud through the lens of the Hubble Telescope
Images source: © NASA

8:57 AM EDT, November 4, 2023

A group of astronomers has proposed a cessation of the name, Magellanic Clouds, for the dwarf galaxies adjacent to the Milky Way. They argue that Ferdinand Magellan, the commander of the first successful expedition around the world, should be erased from astronomical terminology.

The appeal to cease using the name Magellanic for dwarf galaxies has been put forward by dozens of astronomers. They have yet to inform the International Astronomical Union about their proposal, but they have articulated their view in the pages of the APS Physics journal.

About the Magellanic Clouds

The Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, regarded by astronomers as a cosmic star-forming laboratory. Their proximity enables scientists to observe their constituent objects and various clusters, which evidence different stages of star evolution.

In the astronomical field, the terms Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are widely used. They feature in thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles, spawning even more citations.

However, a group of astronomers want to end the use of the names LMC and SMC. They object to associating these galaxies with the name of the Portuguese sailor and explorer, Ferdinand Magellan.

Debate Over Magellan

The authors of this initiative underscore that Magellan had no association with the discovery or study of the galaxies known as his clouds. Initial observations of these systems predate the age of great geographical discoveries, and the term 'Magellanic' was only linked with them during the 19th century.

The push to remove Magellan's name from astronomical annals is, however, motivated by other factors. They point out that Magellan, while a notable figure, was nonetheless a colonizer, known for his brutal interactions with indigenous societies.

The proposal to erase his accomplishments from astronomy is controversial, as one cannot deny Magellan was a man of his time. His expeditions, although violent, allowed him to claim the title of commander of the first voyage around the globe.

Although not an astronomer, Magellan did validate the then-disputed concept of Earth's spherical shape. This is one reason why his name is present not only in relation to well-known galaxies, but he also has a Martian and lunar crater named after him, and Magellan's Telescopes operate at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Proposed Names for the Magellanic Clouds

The International Astronomical Union is yet to receive a petition for the renaming of the galaxies. However, a petition from around 50 individuals who support the change and are part of the anti-Magellan alliance could be forthcoming.

The members of this coalition intend to propose a return to the historical names of the Magellanic Clouds – Nubecula Major and Nubecula Minor. Additionally, they contemplate changing the term 'Magellanic' similarly to how Martian rovers are being named (e.g., Perseverance and Curiosity), which would allow the acronyms LMC and SMC to stay in use.

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