The Magellanic Clouds are our closest neighbors allowing direct observation of individual constituent objects. They are bound to the Galaxy and show signs of strong interaction with the Milky Way about 0.2 Gyr ago (Westerlund 1997). The LMC is classified as an irregular dwarf galaxy, its most prominent feature is a central bar, much like those found in barred spiral galaxies. Its eastern side is closer than its western side (Caldwell & Coulson 1986). Underlying the bar is a circular disk of older stars (Westerlund 1997). The appearance of the SMC is characterized by a much less pronounced bar, and an eastern extension called the Wing. Lines-of-sight through the SMC appear to cover extensive depths; the Wing and the northeastern part of the Bar are closer than the southern parts (Westerlund 1997).
Newly obtained large photometric data sets at different wavelengths and with improved sensitivity and spatial coverage allow us to investigate the large scale properties of the Magellanic Clouds. In particular, data in the near infrared allow us to access stages of stellar evolution that are marginally covered by optical data, such as the RGB and AGB phases.
Very recently Zaritsky et al. (2000) found that the asymmetric appearance of the SMC is primarily caused by the distribution of young stars, and that the older stars have a very regular distribution. It is not possible from their figures to evaluate the behavior of the density towards the center of the Cloud. Weinberg & Nikolaev (2000) point out the presence of intervening tidal debris up to kpc from the LMC.
© European Southern Observatory (ESO) 2000
Online publication: June 26, 2000