Youngest hunter bags a supernova… without a telescope

By Phil Plait | January 5, 2011 10:20 am

When Kathryn Aurora(!) Gray was born, the light from Supernova 2010lt had been traveling for about 239,999,990 years. Ten years later, she spotted it on a computer monitor and became the youngest person to ever discover a supernova.

Lots of folks have been covering this story (and making sure they wrote out her middle name, which is kinda awesome), including the Hive Overmind’s DiscoBlog and Universe Today, so I won’t go into details. But this is pretty nifty. It used to be that it took long, laborious hours at the eyepiece to find exploding stars, and not many were found in a given year — heck, the first supernova in 1987 wasn’t seen until late February (and went on to become the most famous supernova in 400 years).

Now, though, automated telescopes scan the sky, and computer programs have taken away a lot of the burden of supernova hunting. To give you an idea of how many are found every year, they are named in alphabetical order, a-z, so that the 27th of the year is then aa, the 28th is ab, and so on. 2010lt was therefore the 332nd supernova found in 2010! Amazing. Each one is important, too, since many supernovae act oddly, and you never know when one will be special and indicate something new… and even if it’s just another run-of-the-mill explosion, we’re still talking about the detonation of a mighty star releasing energy quintillions of times that of the Sun!

So congratulations to Ms. Gray, and I hope 2010lt is the first of many adventures she has with the sky.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: supernova

Comments (27)

Links to this Post

  1. Tienjarig meisje ontdekt supernova! | Astroblogs | January 5, 2011
  1. Pshaw

    Feels kind of odd to me to celebrate the explosion of a star that may have wiped out worlds.

    But, yeah…congrats to Kathryn!

  2. Grizzly

    I heard on a local CBC report that her dad had been the previous record holder for “youngest discoverer of a super nova”. Not sure who keeps track of such “records”, but obviously she has the astronomy bug in her blood.

  3. Kim

    And it shows she has smart parents to teach her how to look at the sky and tell what it is. And give her proper credit for what she accomplished.

  4. Kathryn

    “When Kathryn Aurora(!) Gray was born, the light from Supernova 2010lt had been traveling for about 239,999,990 years. Ten years later, she spotted it on a computer monitor and became the youngest person to ever discover a supernova.”

    Significant digits error, anyone?

  5. chris j.

    a nice reminder that the only equipment you need to do real astronomy is a mark one eyeball.

  6. Alex Murdoch

    I was in Halifax when I read this news on CBC. I was happy to hear good scientific news, it’s pretty rare these days. To hear good news that praises youth, education, and discovery is even more rare. Congratulations to her and her parents who must be very proud. And…she gets on the BA Blog….JEALOUS!!!

  7. gdave

    I heard an interview with her on NPR last night. Among other things, she mentioned that when she first saw the image, she thought it was a “good possibility” to be a supernova, but didn’t want to get too excited in case it turned out to be something else. I felt chills when she said that – only 10 years old, and she already has an intuitive grasp of forming a tentative hypothesis subject to modification by future evidence, a concept that most adults never really get. She also mentioned that she intends to continue to pursue astronomy only as a hobby – astronomy’s loss seems likey to be another field’s gain.

  8. QuietDesperation

    a nice reminder that the only equipment you need to do real astronomy is a mark one eyeball.

    Are the Mark IIs out yet? My Mark I models have a focusing problem and they are out of warranty.

  9. Jason

    @6 quietDesperation.
    The mark II models are still in pre-development stage and have not yet been authorized for hardware prototyping. However there are add on accessories you can get that mount on or near the front surface to provide correction to the focusing issues you described.
    After market modifications are also available but at additional cost due to the expiration of your warranty.

  10. dcsohl

    Agreed. I’ve long thought it a fatal flaw in the Mark Is that the retinal capillaries partially obstruct the view to the actual photoreceptors. I’ve demanded to return them for a refund previously, but just get snide comments back from customer service about “plucking thy own eye out”…

  11. Jason

    This defect has been corrected by the use of “wiggle”. This rapid and autonomous movement of the Mark I primary receptors allows for compensation of the obstruction by rapidly scanning the unobstructed receptors through the field that would be blocked by a static system.

  12. Cusp

    Well – there was a telescope involved – just not hers.

  13. That’s just so cool! Hopefully it will encourage others to look more closely at science.

  14. QuietDesperation

    I’d still rather have the Mark IIs. Seriously, I have terrible myopia and am now developing terrible presbyopia. The after market accessorizes and mods can only do so much. Did I mention the floaters? That, apparently, runs in the family as well. Both parentsd had cataracts, too, so I have that to look forward to.

    Evolution can kiss my butt.

    I’m old. :-(

  15. TMB

    That Universe Today article has a problem that I’ve seen in most of the news articles about this:

    “Supernovas are stellar explosions that signal the violent deaths of stars several times more massive than our sun.”

    That describes Type II supernovae. But this was a Type Ia, which is caused by a white dwarf that acquires too much mass to be stable.

    [TMB]

  16. This is a wonderful achievement by Kathryn – congratulations to her.

    Phil, I think a reader would leave your piece with the feeling that there’s essentially no room for the amateur in supernova hunting. While it’s true that the majority of supernovae are discovered by automatic searches run by professionals, the world’s leading supernova searcher is a British amateur astronomer called Tom Boles, who, as of November 2010, had 138 discoveries to his credit. Along with two other British amateurs, Ron Arbour and Mark Armstrong, Boles has revolutionized supernova hunting in the amateur community. His telescope is auto-controlled, it’s true, and he does use software help to blink his images, but, when all’s said and done, he’s an amateur – he does it because he loves it! You can read an interview with him on Mike Simonsen’s blog at http://simostronomy.blogspot.com/2009/11/tom-boles-supernova-supersleuth.html

  17. Matt B.

    This is a case for Outliers. Any 10-year-old could do this if they had a family friend to provide the pictures and their dad knew how to report the find. (Yes, I’m bitter.) It is heart-warming that she set out to do this, but would she have done even that much without her astronomical family situation?

  18. watching the sky

    Congratulations to Ms. Gray. I had seen the discovery on http://www.supernovae.net/ but didn’t realize its significance until reading this blog. I wonder how many images she looked through to find this one. I’m an amateur astronomer involved with a project with a professional in which I examine images. Some days I have as many as 1000 to look through. Since starting this past August I have 16 discoveries to date with my 16th coming yesterday (1-4). Not all have been reported to CBAT and unfortunately I did not get credit through CBAT for two of the discoveries even though finding them before the group they gave the credit to. Though CBAT has reported 335 for 2010, there have actually been 553 per the aforementioned site. Several supernovae search groups are not reporting all their discoveries to CBAT, but to ATel (http://www.astronomerstelegram.org/).

  19. Great article – Kathryn is a really special kid!

    ps. I’m the guy who sent her the images used to discover the SN.

  20. Thea

    I’m envious…very envious…
    Congratulations to Kathryn Aurora Gray for entering the record books. I first heard about it from an article in the Globe and Mail.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    Congratulations to Miss Kathryn Aurora(!) Gray.

    Great story & great start. :-)

    Hopefully she’ll make many more astronomical discoveries – incl. the odd auroral one! ;-)

  22. Nigel Depledge

    Sweet!

    And I’m just a little bit jealous.

  23. Fizzics Teacher

    Kids these days. Just when I begin to worry about the future of science and education in Canada, some kid has to go and do this! Well done!

    I never had any neat toys like this when I was young. Newton kept promising to make me a telescope, but he went and took that job at the Royal Mint.

  24. Matt B.

    I’ve decided to look at the situation from the other side. Rather than being bitter that I didn’t have the same kind of opportunity that Kathryn Gray has, I’m glad that a 10-year-old somewhere does have that opportunity.

  25. Kudos to Kathryn!! An auspicious beginning to her astronomy career, LOL… this really gives me hope. It’s not just that she made this discovery, but that she was looking in the first place! Truly awesome.

  26. JoeB

    What ten-year old Kathryn has done is truly amazing. But I would like to echo commenter Kathryn’s remark about significant digits. Phil, how could you? You say, “traveling about x years”, and give the number to eight!!! significant digits. It would be perfectly correct to say, “traveling about 240,000,000 years before being discovered by ten-year old Kathryn Aurora…”.

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