Supernova Discovered by 10-year-old Canadian

Here’s how Kathryn Aurora Gray became the youngest person in history to make such a discovery.

Kathryn Gray

Astronomy enthusiast and supernova discoverer, Kathryn Gray of Fredrickton, New Brunswick.

SkyNews asked  Kathryn to provide a few details about her discovery of a 17th-magnitude supernova in the galaxy UGC3378—a find that received worldwide media attention. Here is her report, compiled in conjunction with her father, Paul Gray.

Paul Gray’s account:

Kathryn asked Dave Lane as we stood in his Abbey Ridge Observatory on December 29, 2010. Her interest in hunting for a supernova was over a year old now, and it was time that she had the opportunity to try. So how does a 10-year-old get to the point where she wants to search for a supernova?

It all began in 1993, when Dave Lane and I began planning what would be our first supernova search. We began searching in 1994, and much to our and many others’ surprise, we discovered our first supernova, SN1995F, in February 1995. At the age of 22, I was thrust into the media spotlight as the youngest person to make such a find, while Dave travelled to the Winter Star Party in Florida. We would continue to search, but the gruelling schedule of having to be at Abbey Ridge Observatory to search in real time was one that would foster burnout, and by the fall of 1995, our search ended.

In 2004, Dave completed the construction of his new backyard Abbey Ridge Observatory, and we once again started our supernova search. This time, we enjoyed success by finding SN2005b and SN2005ea. The first discovery won us the Bring Home the Bacon Award at Starfest, the country’s biggest annual amateur astronomy convention—something I had been adamant on achieving. Soon after, we joined the Puckett Observatory Supernova Search, where I found three more. In early 2007, Dave and I both became too busy to continue, and we thought our search had once again come to an end.

Kathryn’s account:

“What did she do, Dad?” I asked at the dinner table when Dad was telling Mom about a girl named Caroline Moore. He said she was a 14-year-old girl who had discovered a supernova like the ones he had found. I said, “It doesn’t look that hard. If a 14-year-old can do it, so can I. Can I try?” Dad laughed and said that he would have to talk to Dave Lane about it and that we could talk about it again later.

In November, Dad asked me if I wanted to try searching for a supernova. He showed me the computer program and how to make the images blink [rapidly alternating a recent image of a candidate galaxy with an older image of the same field of view]. He explained what a star should look like and what electronic noise looks like. I learned quite quickly how to pick out noise and how to box [crop] a star and see it in a plot to see if looks round like a star should. Dad said I did very good. In about 100 images, I found five of his six supernovas, and he said the last one was very hard, even for him when he found it. So I asked again, “When can I start?”

Finally, this past Christmas vacation, Mom and Dad said we were going to visit the Lanes in Nova Scotia. I was going to get to see the observatory! When we got there, we went out in the cold and into the dome. It was really cool, and the telescope was big, and I said Dad would really like one of these, meaning the domed observatory. It was clear that night, so we went back inside and turned on a computer to take some pictures to see how it works. So I asked once again, “When can I start looking for a supernova?”

Paul Gray’s account:

After this visit, Dave and I both agreed that we should foster Kathryn’s interest and start running some image sessions for her. We would start easy, maybe 50 images once a week. Our hope was that she would be interested enough to endure the blinking of hundreds of images without finding anything for at least a month or two to learn how it is done and how hard it can be. We figured she would eventually get bored with it and move on to other things that 10-year-old girls are interested in. So on the afternoon of December 31, I sent Dave an e-mail with one of our galaxy groups from our 2004 search, a small group with only 52 images. I could have picked one of 39 groups we have in our database, but on this day, I chose this particular group. Little did I know that an unknown supernova was lurking in that part of the sky!

After returning home to New Brunswick on New Year’s Day, we settled back into our normal family life following the holidays. On January 2, I downloaded the search images and put them in the proper directories, called for Kathryn and told her she had images to check. She was there in a flash!

Kathryn Gray

Kathryn at the computer she used to discover a supernova in an image taken by David Lane of Nova Scotia.

At 2 p.m., sitting at the computer, Kathryn quickly opened the Supernova Search Tool in Maxim DL software and started on her first of 52 images. I watched over her to make sure things were going smoothly when, to my surprise, just as she told the software to blink on image #4, I noticed a bright star beside the galaxy that was not on the old photo. As I looked, Kathryn immediately pointed to the spot with the mouse and said, “What is that? Could that be one?”

Stunned by the look of this interloper, I replied, “That looks REALLY good!”

I spent the next half-hour checking on-line for known supernovas and asteroids while Kathryn searched the remaining images. Very soon, I realized that this was for real and that we needed a confirmation image—suddenly, the impossible seemed all too possible. A call to Dave Lane was in order. My first words to him were, “You are not going to believe this!”

By 9 p.m. that evening, we had a couple of confirmation images from other astronomers. We then sent an e-mail to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge Massachusetts, to report the discovery. We waited up that night for a reply, but alas, Kathryn fell asleep at midnight. At breakfast the next morning, when I checked my e-mail, we found out how lucky Kathryn was and what she had just accomplished. We had little time to relax and think about it, however. By 4 p.m. that day, the news was out and the phone started ringing. Kathryn was about to make international news as the youngest person ever to discover a supernova.

In the few days following, she appeared on television—CBC, CTV, Global, CNN and FOX. She did radio interviews with the CBC, BBC, BBC World Service, NPR USA, Radio New Zealand, Australia and others. Most major newspapers in the world had the story, from the local Daily Gleaner in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to the Tehran Times.

It all made for a holiday season none of us would soon forget!

Categories: Astronomy Science, Stars and Galaxies
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