11/04/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

It's in the stars: Nova Scotia family has knack for finding supernovas

HALIFAX - Rarely can someone say they've found a previously undiscovered supernova.

But one Nova Scotia family says they have made a few of those extraordinary finds.

Paul Gray and his children Nathan and Kathryn have all discovered supernovas, a bright explosion after the death of a star.

Paul and Kathryn were both the youngest to do so at the time of their discoveries, according to the International Astronomical Union.

Now Nathan is poised to dethrone his sister.

The family's most recent feat came last Wednesday, when 10-year-old Nathan was analyzing galaxies at his home in Greenwood, N.S.

"I had found something, so me and my dad checked it out, and it seemed to be something, so it was pretty exciting," Nathan said.

Nathan and his sister analyze images of hundreds of galaxies as part of a project with family friend and astronomer David Lane, who owns the Abbey Ridge Observatory in Halifax.

Lane said he decides which galaxies are photographed — from 50 to half a billion light years away — and the images are uploaded to a website that the Grays access from their home. The siblings then compare new images to older images to see if any new objects have appeared.

Nathan has found a few supernovas before, but never one that wasn't previously discovered.

"Sometimes you can get your hopes up," said Nathan, who has been scouring the skies for a supernova for eight months.

"But I'm kind of really excited knowing that I have found something and I can find maybe more."

Lane says Nathan may claim his sister Kathryn's title by 33 days — who also discovered a supernova at age 10 — as the youngest person to co-discover a supernova.

But first it will need to be designated by the International Astronomical Union, and that can take some time, if it happens at all, said Lane.

He said with many supernovas being discovered across the world, the rules have changed over the past few years and not all supernovas are selected to be designated.

"We don't know whether they'll pick ours or not. We'll just have to wait and see," Lane said.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada said in a news release that the discovery has been posted on the International Astronomical Union's website and has been confirmed by U.S. and Italian observers.

Lane said there isn't any doubt in his mind that what Nathan spotted is a supernova.

"If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it's a duck," he said of the supernova in the field of the galaxy designated PGC 61330 in the constellation of Draco.

"We've done all of the tests and we're 99.99 per cent sure it's a supernova."

Kathryn, now 12 years old, said she's proud of her brother.

"He's been really working hard at trying to find one," said Kathryn, who garnered attention from astronauts like Neil Armstrong when she discovered a supernova in the galaxy designated UGC 3378.

Their father Paul held the title of the youngest co-discoverer in 1995 at age 22, when he found a supernova with Lane at the Burke-Gaffney Observatory at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. Lane said it was also the first to be discovered on Canadian soil.

Lane said Nathan's particular discovery, while not scientifically significant on its own, provides data that is invaluable.

"All of the supernova discoveries that are made by all kinds of people around the world for the last 50 years essentially tell us how big the universe is and how old the universe is," said Lane.

"You can learn how the universe is expanding and what its age is and the distances to galaxies and it's a really, really hard thing to figure out.

"It's one of the clues that ... tells us we live in a universe that is expanding and will never stop."