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2011 Top Astronomical Experience (ok two of them)

pgray's picture

Well 2011 for myself started off with a Bang! I should say for my daughter, Kathryn Aurora Gray it started with a Bang and for me began a ride of a lifetime. You see on January 2nd of 2011 Kathryn discovered her first supernova, 2011lt, at the ripe old age of 10, yes 10! This would make her the youngest person to make such a discovery and would lead her on a path we could not have imagined.

To begin with as a supernova hunter myself with 6 discoveries over 15 years I know what excitement a find can bring, the thrill of looking at a suspect knowing you could be the only person(s) in the world who have seen the object yet. I also know the excitement of making news with such a find as when I was 22 I underwent 2 day barrage of media interviews but that was to be outdone by little Kathryn.

I recall that afternoon clearly as Kathryn sitting by the computer pointed out her first suspect on the first day of her official supernova hunt. She had practiced a number of times using old data and proved that she could find suspects by picking out 5 of my previous 6 finds, so it was not to my surprise when she asked me, “ What’s that? Could this be one?” At first look I thought wow! That is one of the best suspects I have seen and told her that it is a pretty good chance but we will have to see if it has already been discovered, which I assumed it would have been being so bright not to mention of course that no one is so lucky as to find a supernova on only their first day of hunting let alone the fourth image!

What followed next was simply surreal. I first checked the known supernova list and to my surprise there were no known supernova in that galaxy. With this information the excitement in the room went up a significant notch. The suspect now went from a possible personal find to a very real suspect. Next up was a check of the minor planet database to make sure there were no known asteroids, of which there were not! With that things got very exciting as we (the whole family was home) knew it was quite possible Kathryn hit the astronomical jackpot!

Kathryn was excited and on pins and needles, not to say her parents were not but work had to be done.  We contacted Dave Lane and started the process of trying to acquire a 2nd image of the suspect. It would be later that evening that Brian Tieman would provide us with that image and confirm that yes Kathryn, you indeed have a genuine supernova suspect! A draft email was touched up and sent to the IAU. We were all very excited but now could only wait. Kathryn stayed up past midnight hoping we would hear back from Dan Green but alas it would be the next morning that the news would come in that Kathryn was announced as an official discoverer of SN2010lt!

Seeing Kathryn succeed in supernova hunting to me was exciting on different levels. I knew what she was feeling finding her own supernova and was excited for her to experience that. I also knew now what my father felt when he watched me 15 years ago when I was interviewed for 2 days after my discovery, very cool to be on both sides.

Kathryn’s discovery would have to be the top event for me in 2011. However it would lead to much more. Kathryn grew a lot in 2011, she went from a shy 10 year old who would not say a word at the local astronomy meeting only a week after her find to a well spoken 11 year old by the end of the year would be given joint talks with her father about her experiences. She excels in school when having to give presentations. It has been amazing to watch her grow.

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In this photo Kathryn is shaking hands with Neil Armstrong while from left to right, Bill Anders (Apollo 8), Victor Gorbakto, and Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 & 13) look on.

 One such amazing experience for Kathryn and her parents would be a trip to Tenerife, Spain for an event called Starmus where Kathryn was invited to give the official opening and represent youth. Starmus brought Space, Astronomy and Music together in one amazing 5 day event. At the closing Kathryn would be on the stage for the finally with about 2 dozen other people including Alexi Leonov, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Jill Tart, Richard Dawkins and Brian May to name a few! Seeing your daughter called to the stage, be given a gift from Alexi Leonov and then shake the hands of the other amazing guest was one of amazement and disbelief! I said to my wife as I stopped taking photos with a watery eye, “How did she get there? WOW!” This was an event and an afternoon we will never forget!