The Gray family of Nova Scotia, Canada has some intense sibling rivalry going on. But unlike with my brother and me, this rivalry goes beyond outsmarting parents or drawing invisible property lines in the back seat of the car. Nathan and Kathryn Gray’s competition of choice involves hunting for supernovas, the dramatic explosions of dying stars. Kathryn was previously recognized by the International Astronomical Union as the youngest person to ever make such a discovery—a legacy she inherited from her father, Paul, who discovered a supernova at age 22 and at the time was the youngest person to ever do so. But on Wednesday, Nathan Gray spotted something interesting while stargazing, and is poised to unseat his older sister as the youngest person ever to find a supernova.
The Gray’s family friend, David Lane, owns the Halifax, Nova Scotia Abbey Ridge Observatory. With friends like that, it makes sense that the Grays would be cosmically-inclined. And Lane benefits too—he uses the keen eyes and minds of his friends to help him compare older and newer images of galaxies to see if anything new has come up—or, you know, exploded.
Nathan has seen a few supernovas before, but they had all been previously discovered. For the past eight months he’s been trying to find a new one, and it appears that he has—a supernova in the PGC 61330 galaxy inside the Draco constellation. When comparing images given to him by Lane, Nathan noticed something that was absent from photos take a couple years ago. The supernova he found might be as far as 600 million light years away, which means that star is putting on some serious fireworks and going out in a blaze of glory.
Astronomers have confirmed the existence of the supernova and the International Astronomical Union has noted the finding on its site and given it the provisional name PSN J18032459+7013306. In order to designate it as an official supernova, its unique light signature needs to be confirmed with a large and powerful telescope, but Lane is confident of Nathan’s findings. If the finding is confirmed, Nathan will unseat the previous record holder for the younger person to discover a supernova—his sister Kathryn, who was 10 when she discovered a supernova in the UGC 3378 galaxy.
Kathryn’s achievement brought quite a bit of press, and she got to meet some famous astronauts, including Neil Armstrong. Kathryn unseated the previous record holder Caroline Moore, who was 14 when she discovered a supernova, but Caroline got to go to the White House and meet the president, so I’m thinking she’s probably doing okay.
Kathryn was 33 days older than Nathan at the time of their discoveries. She’s taking it pretty well and says she’s proud of her brother. Yeah, but I bet she’s working on discovering something else to win back a title and bragging rights. Or, you know, she could just give her brother a noogie or a wedgie and really prove herself.