Astronomers call for renaming the Magellanic Clouds

Explorer Ferdinand Magellan's name is not fitting, a group of scientists argues

A photo of part of the Paranal Observatory in Chile with the Large Magellanic Cloud visible in the center and Small Magellanic Cloud visible on the right.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (center) and Small Magellanic Cloud (right) can be seen with the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere, as shown in this photo from Paranal Observatory in Chile.

Y. Beletsky/LCO, ESO

Names have significance, especially when they’re written in the stars.

A group of astronomers is coalescing around an idea to rename two neighbors of the Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

Named after explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the satellite galaxies are visible with the naked eye from the Southern Hemisphere. But Magellan’s name is not fitting, astronomer Mia de los Reyes and colleagues argue. The leader of the first expedition to successfully circle the globe, Magellan enslaved and killed Indigenous people encountered on the voyage, which set out from Spain in 1519 (SN: 9/17/19).

“Because we’re naming things in the night sky, which belongs to everyone, we think that it’s important to have names that reflect all of humanity,” says de los Reyes, of Amherst College in Massachusetts. She calls for the name change in an opinion piece published September 12 in Physics. Magellan’s voyage helped pave the way for Spanish colonialism in South America, Guam and the Philippines, says de los Reyes, who is Filipino American. “Many people see Magellan as a villain in the Philippines.”

The Magellanic clouds loom large in the field of astronomy. They’re independent galaxies, but close enough that astronomers can observe the individual stars within (SN: 4/1/22). “The Magellanic Clouds are this amazing laboratory for seeing things up close and personal,” says astronomer Sally Oey of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a supporter of the name change.

Magellan wasn’t an astronomer. The clouds were noted by a member of his expedition, but they were already well-known to many cultures in the Southern Hemisphere, and even to previous European explorers. “It doesn’t make sense to have them named after any one person, let alone a person who never actually studied them,” says astronomer Gurtina Besla of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The galaxies have been known scientifically by Magellan’s name since only the end of the 19th century — well after Magellan’s voyage. That’s just a blip in the history of astronomy, the researchers argue.

More than 100 astronomers have expressed interest in the campaign, anchored by a core group of about 50, de los Reyes says. The group aims to bring the proposal to the International Astronomical Union, in hopes of eventually holding a vote on the name change. Other fields of science are undergoing similar debates, with groups of researchers pushing to revise offensive names for certain plants and animals, for example (SN: 8/25/21).

The astronomers are now trying out new names.  One popular suggestion is to call them the “Milky Clouds.” That would maintain the commonly used acronyms, LMC and SMC. And it would reflect the galaxies’ connection to something much bigger than any one person — the Milky Way.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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