Team Dick

Cloudy View

Posted by @ 12:03 PM on Jun 7, 2011

I want to do a followup to the Salty Stars post that was sparked by the time-lapse video from the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Throughout the video you will see, and especially mid-way through during the particularly dark bits where the Milky Way really comes through, a couple of cloudy features, one large and one small, that seem to float along at a distance from the Milky Way.

Those are the Magellanic Clouds and the view from them must be spectacular!

The larger of the two is the aptly named Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). It is about 160,000 light years away from us and is the third closest known galaxy to us. The smaller of the two is named, of course, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). The SMC is about 200,000 light years away and doesn’t appear small in our sky just because it’s farther away, but also because it’s only 7,000 light years across which is about half that of the LMC.

The LMC and SMC can be viewed year-round from the southern hemisphere which is unfortunate for those of us on the northern half of this blue marble.

Northern Sweets

However there is a bit of astral eye candy for the northerners, albeit brief. From September to November the Andromeda Galaxy is overhead and bright enough that it can be seen with the naked eye. If you’re in an area with lots of light you probably won’t see much of anything, but find a spot well away from any major source of light and you’ll get a rather nice treat. Get to know it well as it’s going to collide with our own galaxy in a few billion years.

Andromeda is blue in color to the naked eye because it’s coming right for us.

Galaxy With A View

So what about the view from the LMC? If you were living on a planet located in the LMC you’d be able to look up at the sky and see the Milky Way just like we can look up and see the LMC except for a couple key differences; the Milky Way is way bigger (about seven times) and way brighter (about fourteen times). On an Earth-like planet in the LMC you wouldn’t see the Milky Way during the day, but at night it would fill almost a quarter of the sky. It would no doubt be an awe-inspiring sight. It’s a shame we can’t experience that ourselves.

Actually, we can. Here’s how.


There is a very cool program out there call Celestia. It is an open-source, real-time universe simulator. Just download and install and you too can take a quick jaunt over to the LMC and check out the view.

There’s a lot of cool features with Celestia, such as how it uses images and mapping data from NASA and other space agencies to provide you with the most realistic environment possible. You can explore Celestia yourself and find all the cool things about it. For now let’s get to the LMC.

Start by firing up Celestia which will kindly place you in orbit around the Earth. Hold down the left and/or right mouse buttons and drag your mouse around to move about. Right-button drag will pivot your view around the object you’re focused on while left-button drag will pivot your view from your location. A quick pivot around Earth and you can see the LMC and SMCs right there in the sky.

But how do you get there? Celestia makes this pretty simple. Just select Goto Object from the Navigation menu. In the window that pops up you can enter lots of numbers like latitude, longitude and distance. Thankfully you don’t have to worry about any of that. In the object box simply enter LMC and press the Go To button. Within a few seconds you’ll travel 160,000 light years and find yourself right in the middle of the LMC.

At this point some further mouse control information would be helpful. If you hold down both mouse buttons down and move your mouse up and down you will zoom in and out of the object you’re now focused on. Zoom out a bit from the LMC so that the stars don’t block your view. Hold down the right mouse button and pivot around the LMC until you find the Milky Way. You can then hold down both mouse buttons and drag the mouse left and right to rotate the scene to make everything fit into view.

Now you start to get an idea of just how much bigger the Milky Way is in the LMC sky as compare to the LMC in our sky. How amazing must that view be in real life?

The LMC is 160,000 light years away. We are seeing it as it was 160,000 years ago. 160,000 years ago Earth was in the Middle Paleolithic era and Homo sapiens were well on their way to becoming who we are today. Imagine life similar to Homo sapiens evolving in similar fashion on a planet in the LMC. At night they have this giant spiral of light that covers in their sky. Perhaps they worship it as a god and draw pictures of our home with charcoal on the walls of their caves. And today, right now, their modern equivalent is looking up at the sky and understands what they see is a galaxy of stars and accompanying planets and wonder if perhaps there is life like their own looking back at them; like staring at a mirror light years away.

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