- In recent years several supernovae have turned out to be more powerful and long-lasting than any observed before.
- Archival images showed that the stars that gave rise to some supernovae were about 100 times as massive as the sun: according to accepted theory, stars this big were not supposed to explode.
- Some supernovae may have been thermonuclear explosions triggered by the creation of pairs of particles of matter and antimatter.
- The first generation of stars in the universe, which created the materials that later formed planets, may have exploded through a similar mechanism.
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In the middle of 2005 the W. M. Keck observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii completed an upgrade of one of its giant twin telescopes. By automatically correcting for atmospheric turbulence, the instrument could now produce images as sharp as those from the Hubble Space Telescope. Shrinivas Kulkarni of the California Institute of Technology urged young Caltech researchers—myself among them—to apply for observing time. Once the rest of the astronomy community realized how terrific the telescopes were, he warned us, securing a slot would become very competitive.
Taking this advice, I teamed up with my then fellow postdocs Derek Fox and Doug Leonard to attempt a type of study that previously had been carried out almost solely with the Hubble: hunting for supernova progenitors. In other words, we wanted to know what stars look like when they are about to explode.