500 years of the first circumnavigation and its contribution to astronomy

September 6 marks 500 years since Captain Sebastian Elcano anchored Nau Vitória in the port of Sanlúcar, Spain. It was the end of an epic and tragic three-year journey, started by Fernão de Magalhães and known as the first circumnavigation in history.

The first circumnavigation was not what you could call a complete success. But besides confirming that the Earth is spherical and opening a new route to India, it has given us important contributions in various fields of science, including astronomy.

When the Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães left Spain in 1519, he was on a mission to find an alternative route to the Moluccas, in present-day Indonesia. For this he took a fleet of 5 ships, 234 men and a poor map of the globe, which showed the passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, which did not exist.

[ O mapa do hemisfério ocidental de Johannes Schöner, criado em 1520, mostrando uma passagem ao sul do Brasil que não existia – Fonte: wikimedia.org ]

In addition to the poor map, Magellan faced the cold winter of Patagonia, riots, desertions and an endless crossing of the Pacific Ocean. By the time the voyage ended in 1522, hunger, thirst and disease had already driven off most of the crew. Moreover, they got involved in a battle that was not theirs and ended up losing almost 50 men at once in a battle on the island of Mactan. Among those killed at Mactan was the captain and mastermind of the mission, Ferdinand Magellan.

With Magellan’s death, Sebastian Elcano assumed command of the fleet. But when he returned to Spain in 1522, he had only one ship, the Nau Vitória, only 18 of the 234 men of the original crew and the precious writings of Antonio Pigafetta, which deal with all the misfortunes and conquests of the epic.

1662637809 450,500 years of the first circumnavigation and its contribution
[ Trajetória da primeira circunavegação do globo realizado por Magalhães e Elcano – Fonte: wikimedia.org ]

Something strange had been noticed. While in Spain 1080 days had passed since his departure, the sailors’ records counted one more day. It turns out that by sailing in the opposite direction of the Earth’s rotation, they ended up adding their circumference of the globe to the 1080 times that the Earth did during this period.

The journey has also led to many discoveries on Earth and some in the sky. As they crossed the Pacific Ocean, Ferdinand Magellan noticed two clouds that did not appear to be moving against a background of stars. They were there every night in the same position. Magellan had a good knowledge of astronomy and quickly realized that these clouds could not be in our atmosphere, but in space.

He made important records of these nebulae, which became known in the West as the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds. Today we know that the Magellanic Clouds are not nebulae, but two irregular satellite galaxies in the Milky Way that are only visible from the planet’s southern hemisphere.

1662637810 452,500 years of the first circumnavigation and its contribution
[ Grande e Pequena Nuvem de Magalhães registradas a partir da Indonésia – Créditos: Gilbert Vancell ]

The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 20 times smaller than the Milky Way and is about 160,000 light-years away. The small cloud is about 200,000 light-years away and has only a few hundred million stars.

Both were probably once spiral galaxies and have been warped by the Milky Way’s gravity. Likewise, our galaxy has also been distorted by the interaction of gravity with the Magellanic Clouds.

Admittedly, the Magellanic Clouds had already been observed by other peoples in the southern hemisphere. But Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to record these objects during one of mankind’s greatest adventures.

In addition to confirming the spherical nature of the Earth, Fernão de Magalhães’ voyage around the world was a milestone for human civilization. It can be considered the first planetary mission in history. The achievements of this expedition, completed 500 years ago, have guided our navigations, inspired and still inspire our pioneering spirit inside and outside our planet, seeking ever more distant lands and never fearing the unknown.

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