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The Magellanics

1 Apr 2016, 01:50 UTC
The Magellanics
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The Large Magellanic Cloud (middle left) and Small Magellanic Cloud (upper center) over Paranal Observatory in Chile. European Southern Observatory

Few unaided celestial sights are quite so lovely and moving as the Magellanic Clouds.
An unmistakable wash of milky light in the southern hemisphere sky, I saw them once before at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope high in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and came away smitten. I’m on an explore now in Argentina’s Patagonia and had been very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with that experience of being in the presence of such a gift. (I can’t help but think that many an astronomer who ferries back and forth to the growing number of Atacama observatories is also drawn to the nighttime show put on by the so different southern sky.)
My first good “viewing” opportunity occurred in the shadow of another southern icon– the also nearly milky white spire of Mount Fitz Roy (or El Chalten as originally known.) The Atacama sharpness was gone, but the Magellanics were on display. Billions of stars packed ever so closely together, they are a pleasure to see in their gauzy grace and a spur to the imagination: What, ...

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