The Clouds of Magellan


Visible in the southern sky are two very unique objects. The Magellanic Clouds are two small irregular galaxies that are close neighbours of our own Milky Way galaxy. The clouds are named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who recorded them during his journey south in 1519. The Large Magellanic Cloud
(Photograph of Large Magellanic Cloud courtesy, Anglo-Australian Observatory) is approximately 170,000-180,000 light years away and contains an estimated 10,000 million stars. The Large Magellanic Cloud also contains the well known Tarantula Nebula named after its resemblance to the spider. The Tarantula is brighter and larger than any other of its type. In fact if the Tarantula were as close as the celebrated Orion Nebula, it would cover the whole constellation of Orion and cast shadows! The Small Magellanic Cloud is 230,000 light years away and is located in the constellation of Tucana (the Toucan). James Dunlop of the Parramatta Observatory in Australia was one of the first people to observe the Small Magellanic Cloud with a telescope in the 1820s. Astronomer Harlow Shapley became the first to categorize the Small Magellanic Cloud as your classical dwarf irregular galaxy. The SMC is located close to the south celestial pole, so for many southern observers it is circumpolar but it is invisible for observers north of + 33 degrees. Both the LMC & SMC are easily seen as faint wispy patches in the night sky, however depending on your location can be extremely difficult to see in light polluted areas.    


Virgo & Hydra

In traditional mythology/starlore the constellation of Virgo represents a woman holding an ear of wheat. She is often identified as Astraea, the Roman goddess of justice. The constellation's brightest star is Spica (alpha Virginis) a blue-white star located approximately 262 light years away
(photo courtesy Ikufumi Makino). Virgo dates from ancient times and was known to the ancient Babylonians as Sa-Sha-Shiru (marked by Spica). The name Spica is taken from the Latin word 'Spicum' and relates to the 'ear of wheat' being held in the celestial woman's hand. The constellation covers a large area, and of the 88 constellations Virgo is the second largest in the sky. Hydra which is the largest constellation in the sky shares part of it's border with Virgo. Hydra is traditionally seen as the Water Snake and apart from it's brightest star Alphard (alpha Hydrae) it is not easily seen due to the faintness of many of its stars. The name Alphard is derived from the Arabic language and means "the Solitary One in the Serpent." Alphard is an orange giant star located approximately 177 light years away. Hydra features in many myths, but is most often associated with the constellations Corvus (the Crow) and Crater (the Cup, the goblet of Apollo).

Names for the Pleiades cluster across the world

The Pleiades are a young and hot open cluster of stars situated within the constellation of Taurus the Bull. This open cluster is often referred to as the "Seven Sisters," taken from Greek Mythology they are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. However worldwide this cluster of stars (known to keen astronomers as M45) has captured the imagination of many modern and ancient cultures. Below is a selection of the different names given to this cluster from across the globe (Photograph of Pleiades courtesy of the Anglo-Australian Observatory) 



Makali'i: - Hawaii - eyes of the kings or royalty

Choque Chinchay: - Peru - the Puma's Lair  

Kozaru: - Japan  - a strainer 

Sjostirnith: - Iceland - seven stars

Larnankurrk: - Australia (Boorong) - a group of women who are clapping time to a corroboree 

Aften Hoehne: - Denmark - the evening hen

Hoki hoshi: - Japan - dabs of paint on the sky (brush stars)

Kungkarungkara: - Australia (Pitjantjatjara & Yankunytjatjara) - ancestral women

Tayamni pa: - North America (Lakota) - the Animal's head

Togo Ni Samu: - Solomon Islands - a group of maidens

Tz'ab: - Central America  (Maya Indians) - a rattlesnake's tail

het Zevengesternte: - Netherlands - the Seven Stars

Matariki: - New Zealand - little eyes (or the eyes of chiefs)

Kuratka: - Czech Republic - many small young chickens

Khuseti: - Southern Africa (Khoikhoi) - the stars of rain

Tianquiztli: - Mexico (Aztec) - the marketplace

Nasedha: - Russia - the sitting hen

Krittika: - India - the seven nurses/maidens 

The Pleiades
The Pleiades are a young hot open cluster of stars that are easily seen in country skies. In the city this cluster is visible to the naked eye depending on the amount of light pollution and the location of the city. It is a superb object in binoculars and a telescope brings out many other members of this group. It is visible from both the southern and the northern hemispheres. The cluster is traditionally named after a mythological group of nymphs, who were the daughters of Atlas (one of the Titans) and Pleione. Approximately 250 stars belong to this cluster which is estimated to be at a distance of 378 light years away, according to recent Hipparcos satellite data. The Pleiades cluster formed roughly 50-60 million years ago, so in astronomical terms the stars are actually quite young. If the dinosaurs had glanced into the night sky they would have not seen the Pleiades because they had not yet formed. The dinosaurs died out approximately 65 million years ago when a large asteroid (or possibly a comet) struck the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous period, pushing them to extinction.


In Mexico, the ancient Aztecs had risen to build a mighty civilization. Like many early cultures they closely monitored the celestial dance taking place before them. The way they perceived the world is revealed through their myths, which were recorded in books known as codices. The Pleiades were known to the Aztecs as Tianquiztli which means "marketplace." The Aztecs believed that they could prevent the demons of darkness from descending to Earth and devouring men, by offering their deities human sacrifices. During the ceremony, the priests would closely monitor the passage of the Pleiades 'Tianquiztli' as it moved across the sky. The Aztecs followed the Pleiades for a cycle of 52 years. At this time, if the Pleiades had reached the zenith, or highest point in the sky, the world was safe and would continue for another 52 years. Once the Pleiades had safely passed the zenith the Aztec priests would sacrifice their victim by opening the chest cavity and pulling out the heart. Once this had been performed they would light a fire in the cavity and if it burnt well, they believed that the new sun would be reborn.

God of Thunder 
In the tropical jungles of Brazil the Taulipang Indian People use some of the stars that modern astronomers see as the constellation of Leo (the Nemean Lion) as their god of thunder & lighting. The name of their god is 'Tauna' and his body stretches from the star Denebola (Beta Leonis) to Regulus (Alpha Leonis). The star Denebola marks out one of the god's two feet and the bright star Regulus marks out the head of this stellar deity. The stars that we see as marking out the mane of the lion trace out one of the god's out stretched arms.

The Celestial Emu     
Not all constellations are seen by using imaginary lines joined from star to star. Many Australian Aboriginal groups used the dark patches that they could see in the night sky to trace out shapes. A good example is a giant Emu that was seen by many of the people who live in the western central desert of Australia (photo courtesy Ikufumi Makino). The head of the Emu is marked by a conspicuous dark cloud that is easily seen in the country and also visible in the city depending on light pollution levels. This dark cloud is now known to modern day astronomers as the Coalsack Nebula. The 'Coalsack' is approximately 600 light years away and is located within the constellation of Crux, or as it is more commonly known the Southern Cross, although, some of this dark nebula spills over into the constellations of Centaurus (the Centaur) and Musca (the Fly). The long neck of the celestial Emu, extends down dark lanes through Centaurus and the body into the dark lanes of Scorpius. The celestial Emu is truly a large and spectacular sight for those who get the opportunity to get away from the pollution of the city.

Tien Mun

To the ancient Chinese the bright star Spica (alpha Virginis) and some of the stars in Hydra (the Water Snake) make for an interesting asterism. If we look at the star Spica and the star gamma Hydrae and imagine them as the tops of two celestial fence posts, and then between the two main stars we can see four faint stars diagonally in a row. The four faint stars are 57, 61, 63 & 69 Virginis. The four faint stars represent an opened gate. The Chinese call this part of the sky 'Tien Mun' which basically refers to 'heaven's gate'. The literal translation is "sky's door." The two brighter stars Spica & gamma Hydrae are easily seen in most cities, however you may need to be away from city lights to clearly see the fainter gate stars.

The Indian Maidens
Situated in the north western U.S. state of Wyoming, is the Devils Tower national monument. Many of you may remember this geological feature as was featured in the Hollywood movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Devils Tower is a 1,300ft volcanic rock formation which was known to the local Native Americans as 'Mateo Tepe'. The Kiowa Indians believed that there were seven indian maidens camped near the river. The region was known to have a large bear population and one of the bears began to chase the girls. The maidens fled from the bear, gathered together and prayed to the great spirit to save them. The great spirit raised the girls on a pillar of rock which is now known as the Devils Tower. The bear tried in vain to reach the girls by clawing at the side of the rock finally breaking his claws and falling to the ground. On the side of the tower there now appears to be scrape marks which the Indians say is a result of the bear trying to reach up to the maidens. Once elevated the great spirit placed the maidens in the sky which we now see as the seven sisters (Pleiades).  





Paul Curnow

Updated 14th January 2011