There are two little clouds that can only be seen from southern latitudes. Even on cloudless summer nights these two clouds are ever persistent. If you face south to southwest and slowly gaze slightly upward, you will notice them – one a bit larger than the other but night after night always taking on the same form. These two clouds do not belong to the Earth’s weather pattern at all but are actually two, very far away irregular dwarf galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds.
At a distance of 179,000 light years away, they were known as the Earth ‘s closest neighbouring galaxies until another galaxy, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, which is 80,0000 light years away, was discovered in 1994.
However, not to be upstaged by the new discovery, the Magellanic Clouds will always hold appeal because of the fact that they both are clearly visible to the naked eye as well as being south circumpolar objects, sometimes a bit higher in the sky and sometimes dipping low towards the horizon. If you own binoculars, take a closer look at these two clouds. You are not going to see rain there but I can assure you that a pretty picture will unfold.
When I am at Betty’s Bay I gaze up at the sky regularly just to confirm that they can actually still be seen with the naked eye I am always relieved that although I have new neighbours who tend to leave on outside lights throughout the night, I am still able to find the galaxies without the aid of my telescope.
A note to all Betty’s Bay residents: From where I live near city lights I cannot see the Magellanic Clouds at all. Like so much else that is precious about Betty’s Bay, the night skies also need to be preserved.
Getting to know the night sky is not much different from getting to know your neighbourhood, city, province or country. Some of us skip a few steps and venture farther to neighbouring countries or feel a real need for speed and travel right around the world. A select few have progressed past all of this and have become zero gravity junkies, living and working beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
In getting to know the night sky, you first visit Earth’s immediate neighbourhood – the Moon, Mercury, Venus and Mars, the gas planets, the Sun and other objects of the solar system. Some skip these steps and venture to our second nearest star system, Alpha,Beta and Proxima Centauri. Others explore the thousands of star clusters and nebulae between the millions and millions of stars that form our Milky Way Galaxy.
The ultimate thrill seekers search for galaxies outside our own, whizzing past the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are visible to the naked eye and farther and farther into space. A select few go for gold and with the aid of “Extremely Very Large” telescopes see back in time, as far back as thirteen billion years and more, to where it all began.
Whichever adventure you embark on, there will be pros and cons.
You will either be constantly on the move or quite stationary. Reading road maps during the day is much easier than reading sky maps in the dark.
Discovering new places on Earth and in the night sky are equally thrilling. On daytime excursions you need to look respectable most of the time. On night sky adventures you need not fret if you have left your vanity case at home.
During the day you could get struck by a buck. Snakes are nocturnal.
Jet lag or lack of sleep are to be expected. You have the option of lugging along heavy baggage or travelling light.
Adverse atmospheric conditions could put a damper on any adventure.
Depression is a normal side-effect when you return to reality. This is a necessary condition which drives you to plan your next excursion.
Which destination will beckon? Plenty sunshine or plenty starshine?
Traffic, crowds, noise, queues or solitary stillness, with or without a few like-minded friends.
In my case, getting to know the night sky will most probably outweigh all other options…