Tuesday, July 26, 2011

To Discover A Star

Kepler's Supernova

Kathryn Aurora Grey

Kathryn's Star

Abby Ridge Observatory

Dear readers, thanks to the Republicans in the House of Representatives, and their Tea Bagger miscreants, we've been examining some pretty serious issues for the last week or more. Let's take a little break from that for the time being (today) and talk about some things that really matter... like supernovas.
A lot of readers have been asking me lately, "Rick..." (they call me Rick) "...what the heck is a supernova anyway?"
Well it's certainly not a 2000 science fiction film, I can tell you that. That movie was called "Supernova," but there wasn't even one single stinking supernova in it. There wasn't even a regular nova, let alone a super one.
I can tell you this though, the short answer to this question is... a supernova is a star that has exploded, and exploded big time.
The explosion is so big, so energetic, that for a brief time (a few weeks of months), it can outshine the entire galaxy which hosts it.
The first picture above is of a supernova that occurred within our very own galaxy, the Milky Way. And very recently, just last April. It is called SN1604, or Kepler's Supernova if you prefer. I certainly don't care. Call it whatever you want. It's about 20,000 light years away from us, which means that the star actually blew up about 20,000 years ago, and it's light is just now reaching us here on Earth. To look out into the depths of space is to look into the distant past.
There are a couple of mechanisms by which a star will explode like this. One is illustrated in the chart below:

But basically the process involves a star that collapses to a critical point and it goes Kaboom, but silently as there is no sound in outer space (something film makers should learn to understand, except for the late Stanley Kubrick).
Some of my readers are asking other questions about supernovas (What!? They don't have Wikipedia? It's a very reliable source of information) "Rick," they say, "who is the youngest person to ever discover a supernova?" Well that's an easy one. As far as recorded history goes, that would be ten year old Kathryn Aurora Grey of Fredericton, New Brunswick, up there in Canada. That's her picture above. What a cutie!
Hey, don't take my word for it. Here's the official announcement from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada:

Toronto, Canada (January 3, 2011) – The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) is pleased to announce the discovery of a supernova by a ten-year-old amateur astronomer—the youngest person ever to have made such a discovery.
Ten-year-old Kathryn Aurora Gray of Fredericton, New Brunswick under the watch of astronomers, Paul Gray and David Lane, are pleased to report the discovery of a magnitude 17 supernova in galaxy UGC 3378 in the constellation of Camelopardalis, as reported on IAU Electronic Telegram 2618.
The galaxy was imaged on New Year's Eve 2010, and the supernova was discovered on January 2, 2011 by Kathryn Aurora Gray and Paul Gray.

The discovery was soon verified by Illinois-based amateur astronomer Brian Tieman and Arizona-based Canadian amateur astronomer Jack Newton. It was then reported to the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams.

It would appear that the RASC misspelled their last names. What can you do?
This is what happened as far as I can tell. Kathryn's dad, Paul Grey just happens to be an amateur astronomer himself, and has a little experience discovering supernovas. He's found seven of the freaking things!
Well, Paul has a friend, David Lane, who is also an amateur astronomer, but he has that cool observatory in his back yard that's pictured above (that is a ten foot dome, whatever that means. I suppose the base's diameter is ten feet across). It's called the Abby Ridge Observatory. That telescope can be operated by anyone on the planet who wants to pay for it and who has access to the Internet. Anyway, Paul and Kathryn visited David (who is no slouch at discovering supernovas himself... his number stands at four), who was impressed with Kathryn's enthusiasm for astronomy.
David took some pictures last New Year's Eve, about 52 of them, and Emailed them to Paul. A couple of days later, on January 2nd, Paul and Kathryn sat down to dad's computer and looked through them. Paul had specific software that helped locate supernovas, which is done by comparing photographs of the same region of space at different times.
Kathryn later told Melissa Block of National Public Radio (NPR), the computer started blinking (indicating that a supernova might have been discovered), she tried to stay calm.
"Kathryn pointed to the screen and said: 'Is this one?' I said (Paul) "Yup, that looks pretty good."
If you compare pictures of that third picture from the top with that of the same region at a different time, you will see the point which is the exploding star blink on and off. That is what caught Kathryn's eye, and that is what makes her the discoverer of the star (or remanent of the star).
Her dad checked to make sure the images were not that of passing asteroids, which can mimic the appearance of supernovas. He ruled that out, and Kathryn became the new youngest person to discover one (which really pissed off dad, as up until then he held the record, discovering his first supernova at twenty two. They have since reconciled).
"It's fantastic that someone so young would be passionate about astronomy. What an incredible discovery. We're all very excited," said Deborah Thompson of RASC.
Kathryn's star is called Supernova 2010lt... I don't know why, other than I believe the 2010 stands for the year it was imaged (New Year's Eve, 2010). As indicated above it is a magnitude 17 supernova, which is a measure of brightness as seen by an observer here on Earth. It is located in the galaxy UGC 3378, in the constellation Camelopardalis, and is about 248,800,000 light years away, and you know what that means, dear readers, yes, what Kathryn and Paul saw is something that happened about 249 million years ago.
"I'm really excited. It feels really good," Ms Grey told Canada's Star newspaper.
When asked by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) what it was she was going to do now, considering she's already discovered a supernova at the age of ten.
"I'm just going to look for more supernovas," she said.
Dad's found seven. David four. At ten years old Kathryn has plenty of time to catch up.

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