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N.B. girl, 10, youngest person to discover a supernova

Kathryn Gray, 10, outside her home in Kingsley near Fredericton, New Brunswick, with her dad's reflectiong telescope.

Globe and Mail Photo/Globe and Mail Photo

Ten-year-old Kathryn Gray had lots of fun over the winter holidays. She especially liked going to Nova Scotia to visit with family.

Then, after returning home to New Brunswick, she discovered a supernova about 240 million light years away.

Kathryn is the youngest person ever to have discovered a stellar explosion, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada says. Her find was confirmed by Arizona-based Canadian amateur astronomer Jack Newton, who holds the record for the discovery of the most supernovas by an amateur in 2010, and Illinois-based amateur astronomer Brian Tieman.

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Kathryn was rather blasé on Monday about her discovery. She was not quite sure what to think about it, her mother Susan said in an interview: "She did not understand why everyone thought it was such an amazing thing. For her, it was just something she works on with her dad."

The girl has been part of her father's amateur astronomy world as long as she can remember. She had a simple explanation for a supernova. "It's just a really old star, really old. So, it just blows up," she said from her home in Birdton, north of Fredericton.

Kathryn recounted her discovery in a matter-of-fact tone. She was with her father at the computer at their home, looking at nighttime images of the sky that had been taken by a telescope in Halifax and sent to her dad.

A tiny white spot appeared just above a faraway galaxy. The professionals call the galaxy UGC 3378 in the constellation of Camelopardalis.

"We both noticed it," said the young amateur astronomer, the oldest of four children in the family. "It was a good possibility. So we wrote it down on a piece of paper, so we could come back and check on it."

They continued to look through several more images before returning to the "suspect" supernova. They then checked whether their discovery could have been an asteroid or comet, by asking someone else to take another image of the sky to see if the supernova was there hours later. "If it was a comet or asteroid, it would be gone," she explained. They also checked out whether the supernova was new or had been previously identified.

Amateur astronomer Dave Lane, who provided the images of the stars for Kathryn, said finding a supernova is not an earth-shattering event.

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"But every supernova discovery goes into the body of knowledge that helps astronomers understand the universe," he said from Halifax. Distances in space can be determined by measuring the energy and brightness of supernovas. "It will not change the price of bread, but it will help us understand the age of the universe and where the universe began, it is part of that puzzle," he said. In recent years, around 300 supernovas have been discovered annually.

The stars that become supernovas are faint celestial glimmers that are undetectable before they blow up. The explosions occur when the stars run out of hydrogen and other fuels and then collapse into themselves under their own gravity with a big bang. As they blow up, they become many times brighter, visible on images taken from far away.

Mr. Lane and Kathryn's father Paul Gray have searched together for supernovas since 1995. They discovered the first supernova in Canada in 1995 while Mr. Lane was working as an astronomy technician at St Mary's University in Halifax.

Mr. Lane recalled that Kathryn was often on her father's knee when they were looking for supernovas a few years ago in an observatory that Mr. Lane had built in his backyard. He was not surprised this Christmas when Mr. Gray told him that Kathryn was interested in astronomy and had recently begun practising how to search for supernovas. Mr. Lane started sending images to the Gray family a few days later.

The discovery came from images taken on Dec. 31. The most effective method for amateur astronomers to identify a supernova is to look at before-and-after images; it is not unusual for amateurs to go through tens of thousands of images before finding one. The discovery, confirmed by other amateur astronomers who have their own images of the stars before and after the explosion, has been reported to the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams.

Kathryn said she was really excited when they confirmed the discovery, but she has no great desire to go any closer to the stars. Although some grownups were talking Monday as if she was destined to become an astronaut, Kathryn said she does not expect to do any space travel. "Looking from the Earth is fine," she said. "No, I probably will not go up there."

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She would rather be a teacher, maybe in Grade 1, and she would talk about supernovas in her classroom. "I might do a little science thing about the stars," she said.

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