A group of astronomers is advocating for a change in the names of the Milky Way’s two brightest satellite galaxies due to their association with the “violent colonialist” they are currently named after. The Large Magellanic Cloud and Small Magellanic Cloud, named after the 16th-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, are being targeted for rebranding by Dr. Mia de los Reyes, an assistant professor of astronomy at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Dr. Reyes highlights in her essay the accounts of Magellan’s expedition, which included the enslavement of the Tehuelche people in present-day Argentina. She writes about how Magellan and his men burned villages and killed inhabitants in Guam and the Philippines. Dr. Reyes argues that Magellan’s name should be removed from the satellite galaxies, and she has garnered support from approximately 50 other astronomers.
The renaming effort presents a challenge since Magellan’s name is also connected to craters on the moon and Mars, the NASA Magellan spacecraft, and several notable space telescopes. However, the focus remains on the Large Magellanic Cloud and Small Magellanic Cloud, which are of astronomical significance due to their abundance of stellar bodies and their role as ideal study subjects for star formation.
Dr. Reyes emphasizes that indigenous people had their own names for the clouds long before Magellan and his crew observed them in the night sky. She argues that Magellan’s lack of astronomical discoveries, combined with his legacy of imperialism and violence against indigenous populations, disqualifies him from being honored in the astronomical nomenclature.
This initiative to rename astronomical objects with controversial historical associations is not without precedence. Last year, there was an unsuccessful attempt to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope due to allegations of discrimination made against James Webb for his treatment of homosexual staff during his tenure in the US federal workforce in the 1950s and ’60s.