Those Canadians are good. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has recognized delightful Kathryn Gray, a student in the fifth grade, as the youngest person ever to spot and document a newly occurring supernova in space. In fact, while studying photographic plates with star histories on New Year’s Eve, just days ago, the young lady from Fredericton, New Brunswick noted, that is to say, discovered, a magnitude 17 supernova!
The Kathryn Gray discovery will be named Supernova 2010lt, in a galaxy with the catchy nomenclature of UGC 3378, 240 light years from Earth, seen in the constellation Camelopardalis. Camelopardalis is a faint constellation in the northern sky; the word translates as “giraffe.”
One of the most far-ranging events in space, in the life of a star, occurs when the star is only a few million years from death. At this point, with most of its nuclear fuel exhausted, it is no longer able to continue producing light and energy and will explode to many times its usual size. If, for example, our sun were to supernova, its diameter would multiply exponentially and the sun would encompass many of the planets in our system, including our dear Mother Earth. (Have no concern. This couldn’t happen for many millions of years.)
Following the explosion, the star may become a rapidly rotating neutron “radio pulsar,” or, more likely, one of the most common stars in the universe, a red dwarf. Red dwarfs are more numerous in the galaxies than grains on sand on earth, and may account for what scientists refer to as “dark matter.”
Young Kathryn Gray was on her Christmas break from the fifth grade, still enjoying the initial thrill of the New Year’s Eve discovery, when she responded to a phone call from a reporter with a news agency. “I’m really excited. It feels really good,” she told the caller. The first to find out about Kathryn’s discovery, she said, were some friends over on a play date. Speaking of her girlfriend from school, Kathryn said: “I’m not sure she knew what a supernova was, but she thought it was pretty cool that I found one!”
Kathryn’s father, with a firm interest in astronomy, taught the girl to study images of stars on a computer screen, the idea being to note changes in individual stars, or in relative motion. The particular images his daughter was studying came from Dave Lane, an amateur astronomer in Stillwater Lake, Nova Scotia, near Halifax. Lane had emailed the images to Paul Gray. Following the discovery, which turned out to be absolutely real, Gray went over the material to rule out asteroids and already-listed supernovas.
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada confirms that Kathryn Aurora Gray is the youngest person to make such a discovery. Her findings will be forwarded to amateur astronomers in the United States for further verification. The discovery has also been confirmed by the International Astronomical Union.