Like swapping out your old Nokia flip-phone for a Huawei P40 with 5G capabilities, NASA will soon be sending a telescope into space that will make the Hubble, which has been in service since 1990, look like a remnant from a more primitive time. Known as the James Webb Space Telescope and set to launch later this year after multiple delays, the $10 billion project could provide scientific evidence that there are planets besides ours capable of sustaining life, finally proving that we are not, perhaps, alone.
Decades in the making, this massive, ambitious and logistically daunting space scheme sounds like something hatched from the mind of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. And yet it’s very much the real thing in director Nathaniel Kahn’s latest documentary, The Hunt for Planet B, which focuses on both the science behind the Webb telescope and the team of scientists, many of them women, making it happen.
A major deep space endeavor portrayed in human terms.
For a subject that can seem impenetrable for anyone who’s not an astrophysicist from Stanford or MIT, Kahn’s film is extremely down-to-earth. It renders the project’s colossal scope — the Webb will be rocketed almost a million miles into space, using infrared sensors to detect radiation emitted by stars and planets thousands of light years away — graspable. But even more so, it manages to put a friendly, mostly female face to all the technical exploits and celestial theorizing, underlining how much the desire to uncover the secrets of the known universe is something that’s all-too human.
Taking its title from a prospective counterpart to our own world that could be out there somewhere in space, if only we could see it, Planet B jumps between the project’s late testing phases — which take place at contractor Northrop Grumman in California and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland — and the handful of renowned scientists either directly involved with the Webb or part of the lineage that brought it about.
These include Sara Seager, whose lifelong study of exoplanets (that is, planets outside of our solar system) has made her the theoretical figurehead of the project; Amy Lo, one of the Webb’s engineering directors and also an amateur race-car mechanic on the side; Maggie Turnbull, whose work on habitable planets set the stage for present explorations; Jill Tarter, an astronomer specializing in the search for extraterrestrial life (she inspired the Jodie Foster character in Contact); and Jon Arenberg, chief engineer, as well as a former competitive weightlifter who still pumps iron in his 60s.
You can tell Kahn enjoys hanging out with all these geniuses, getting to know them professionally as well as personally, revealing their backstories (some of them quite tragic), life-changing experiences and nerdy quirks (such as Seager listening to Tears For Fears in her car, then observing with much satisfaction that “the 80s, the beat, is still very popular”). As much as their on-the-job exploits seem extraordinary, the scientists often come across as ordinary folk, albeit with multiple PhDs and the collective ability to deploy a telescope five times farther away from us than the Moon.
The scenes where we see the Webb being assembled are slickly edited by Sabine Krayenbühl, and backed by a score from Paul Leonard-Morgan whose booming, action movie-like tone can be a bit much at times. And yet watching this giant looking glass come to life is certainly awe-inspiring, especially when we understand some of its groundbreaking components, including a five-layered sun shield (to keep the temperature low enough for infrared observation), which, when we finally witness it unspool, resembles a gargantuan Jiffy Pop pan whose tinfoil is slowly expanding.
Kahn dwells on the fact that the Webb telescope and the study of exoplanets involves an unusual number of women — something that can be explained, per Seager and others, by the fact that exoplanets and extraterrestrial research were initially shunned by members of the academic community. At one point the documentary takes us all the way back to the teachings of Galileo, including a visit to his former villa in Florence, reminding us that ideas once considered hearsay are now universally accepted.
This may be the case when the Webb provides tangible proof, via infrared readings of planetary gases too complicated to explain here, that other forms of life are out there. Such proof may also give us hope that we can survive the environmental crises to come, provided we find a way to preserve our planet the way those across space may have.
Alas, by the time The Hunt for Planet B ends we’re not ready for results: The telescope’s launch into space was delayed yet again (it’s now set for October 2021). At best we get to watch the Webb team test it on the ground, offering up a perspective on what’s to come. “I guess we’re kind of a lonely species,” exclaims one scientist early on, summing up in profoundly simple terms what all the fuss is about. Hopefully not for long.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production company: Crazy Boat Pictures
Director: Nathaniel Kahn
Producers: Bonnie Hlinomaz, Nathaniel Kahn
Executive producers: Sandra Evers-Manly, Carleen Beste, Matt Mountain, Lawrence B. Benenson, Gerry Ohstrom, Alberto Conti
Director of photography: Robert Richman
Editor: Sabine Krayenbühl
Composer: Paul Leonard-Morgan