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.)
There used to be a time when you could easily impress a date by pointing to the night sky and dreamily rattling off names of major stars, constellations, and the like. Now, instead of cramming your head full of names or making up stuff as you go along, you can use your trusty iPhone to guide you through your stargazing.
There are a bunch of apps that you can download, depending on your interest level and degree of expertise. Most of the apps are based on augmented reality–so all you have to do is point your phone towards the sky and the app does the rest.
If you’re a beginner, Pocket Universe ($3) and Star Walk ($3) are recommended by The New York Times for iPhone users; while Google Sky Map is great for Android users.
With Pocket Universe, you can use the camera view to look at the evening or morning sky, and the app will overlay the labeled view over the real sky. (The iPhone’s camera isn’t good enough yet to pull off this feat with a dark night’s sky.) The app also plots the position of the sun, moon, and planets, displays 10,000 stars, and traces the shapes of the constellations. Pocket Universe also features a “Tonight’s Sky” option, showing you a list of planets you can spot with the naked eye.
New Scientist says our galaxy contains about 500 Cepheid variables—giant pulsating stars. Astronomers know how many exist because these objects shine bright enough at the peak of their variability to be seen from as far as 60 million light years away. Learned says that highly advanced aliens could alter a Cepheid’s rate of variability by blasting it with something of great energy, like a beam of neutrinos. If they could control the rate, they could encode binary 0’s and 1’s into the stars, and communicate across the galaxy.
“If I could rerun the tape of life from the origin of unicellular organisms… would terrestrial life originate at all? Would we get mobile creatures that we could call animals?”
–Stephen Jay Gould, “Fungal Forgery” in Natural History, 1993
“Are there universal laws of life, much like the fundamental laws of physics, which govern or limit the characteristics that make it–in any form–possible?”
–Blurb for “Looking for the Laws of Life” panel discussion at the World Science Festival