The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is one of the staples of the southern sky and one of the closest dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. The SMC and its big sister, the Large Magellanic Cloud, have been fascinating humanity since the dawn of time, and we are about to see them like never before.
The SMC has been misshapen by gravitational attraction from the other galaxies in the system. This has made it quite active, with a lot of new stars forming. And since it’s only 200,000 light-years away, the SMC is a brilliant candidate to study stellar evolution. The issue so far has been interstellar dust. The SMC is a very dusty object and getting the full picture of it has been difficult.
Luckily, astronomers can now count on the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope – or VISTA – which has been able to peer through the layer of dust and deliver an incredible 1.6 Gigapixel (43 223 x 38 236 pixels) image of the dwarf galaxy.
While the image is absurdly pretty, it is also full of important scientific data. An international collaboration of researchers, led by Stefano Rubele of the University of Padova, has analyzed this data and discovered something unexpected. Most of the stars within the SMC formed more recently compared to larger galaxies in the local universe. The data show periods of enhanced star-formation 1.5 billion and 5 billion years ago.
The discovery, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is a preliminary result of a more ambitious project. The VISTA survey of the Magellanic Clouds (VMC) is working out the star formation histories of the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, as well as constructing a three-dimensional map of the two dwarf galaxies.
The VMC has delivered an unparalleled and, more importantly, unobscured view of the SMC. The collaboration behind the survey has released dozens of papers already and many more will come from this piercing look into our cosmic companions.
Check out the incredible zoomable image of the galaxy here.