- either of two irregular galactic clusters in the southern heavens that are the nearest independent star system to the Milky Way.
Origin of Magellanic cloud
- either of two small irregular galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud (Nubecula Major) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (Nubecula Minor), lying near the S celestial pole; they are probably satellites of the Galaxy. Distances: 163 000 light years (Large), 196 000 light years (Small)
1680s, from Modern Latin Magellanicus, from Latinized name of Portuguese navigator Fernão de Magalhães (c.1470-1521), the first European to round the tip of South America. He described them c.1520, hence the name in Europe; but at least the larger of the two had been mentioned by Anghiera in 1515. In English they were earlier the Cape Clouds, because they became prominent as sailors neared the Cape of Good Hope; "but after Magellan became noted and fully described them they took and have retained his name." [Allen]
Coompasinge abowte the poynt thereof, they myght see throughowte al the heaven about the same, certeyne shynynge whyte cloudes here and there amonge the starres, like unto theym whiche are scene in the tracte of heaven cauled Lactea via, that is the mylke whyte waye. [Richard Eden, translation of "Decades of the New World," 1555]
- Two small, irregular dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. They are among the galaxies closest to the Milky Way and are faintly visible near the south celestial pole. See also irregular galaxy.