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.