Astronomy Gets Adorable: Ten-Year-Old Girl Discovers Supernova

By Jennifer Welsh | January 5, 2011 11:34 am

Most ten-year-olds don’t have the patience to sift through star images for thousands of hours. But Kathryn Aurora Gray was on a mission: She wanted to become the youngest person to discover a supernova.

And luckily for her, Kathryn’s work didn’t take thousands of hours–she discovered an exploded star about fifteen minutes after starting her career as an amateur astronomer. After looking through four of the 52 pictures provided by family friend and astronomer David Lane, she saw it, her father explains to the Canadian Star:

“Kathryn pointed to the screen and said: ‘Is this one?’ I said ‘yup, that looks pretty good’,” said Paul Gray, describing his daughter’s find.

The images that Kathryn studied to find the supernova were taken by Lane on New Year’s Eve at his “backyard astronomical observatory” in Nova Scotia, Canada. On January 2nd, Kathryn and her father sat down to analyze Lane’s images using a computer program that overlays pictures of the sky from different dates. If one of the stars in the frame brightens dramatically, it appears to “blink” when switching back and forth between the pictures. (See an animation here.)

After ruling out previously discovered supernovas and other comets or asteroids in the area, the Grays and Lane reported the find to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The discovery was soon verified by amateur astronomers in Illinois and Arizona, and was finally confirmed by the International Astronomical Union. The adults are all thrilled by Kathryn’s discovery, the Canadian Star reports:

“It’s fantastic that someone so young would be passionate about astronomy. What an incredible discovery. We’re all very excited,” said Deborah Thompson of RASC.

Kathryn couldn’t have had a better set of teachers: This was her father’s seventh supernova discovery and Lane’s third. Her father found his first supernova at age 22–at the time he was the youngest person to discover one. According to the Royal Astronomical Society (pdf), the supernova is called 2010lt and is a magnitude-17 supernova in galaxy UGC 3378, in the constellation of Camelopardalis, 240 million light years away.

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Image: Paul Gray

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