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A new documentary captures the lead-up to the long-awaited launch of the James Webb telescope

The Hunt for Planet B

Nathaniel Kahn, director
Crazy Boat Pictures
2021
93 minutes

When asked if she believes there is life beyond Earth in the new documentary film The Hunt for Planet B, American astronomer Jill Tarter, who has dedicated her life to finding signs of intelligence in the cosmos, pointedly replies, “Whatever I think about life beyond Earth doesn’t matter a bit…We’re not doing religion here, we’re doing science.” Yet humans have long dreamed of finding another planet like Earth, if only to prove that we are not alone.

The Hunt for Planet B, directed by Nathaniel Kahn, tells the story of the scientists searching for signs of extraterrestrial life and is organized around the building of the NASA-led James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the high-powered Hubble successor scheduled to launch in late 2021. The film provides a behind-the-scenes view of the technical complexities, personalities, and politics that go into building a multidecade space mission.

In a historically male-dominated field, women are at the forefront of habitable exoplanet research. This film weaves together scenes from their personal and professional lives as they lead this effort. Featured in the film are the mother-daughter astrophysics duo Natalie and Natasha Batalha, who are spearheading efforts to detect habitable worlds and model them; quantum astrochemist Clara Sousa-Silva, who is developing techniques to determine the molecular components of exoplanet atmospheres; and astronomer Sara Seager, who leads a team whose goal is to discover new biosignatures and to build instruments that, for example, help block out a host star’s light, helping researchers to see planets of interest. The film even includes glimpses into the researchers’ lives outside work. Astronomer Maggie Turnbull paddles her canoe as she discusses the nuances of planetary habitability, while systems engineer Amy Lo, who leads the alignment of the JWST, reveals a passion for race cars.

The JWST—which is so powerful it could detect from Earth the heat of a bumble bee on the Moon—will allow scientists to look further back in our Universe’s history than ever before. Owing to its large size, it will be folded up for launch and unfurled in space, at which time repairs will be impossible. Much like the so-called “7 minutes of terror” experienced by NASA personnel in February 2021 during the Perseverance Mars landing, the JWST crew is in for some tense moments. For them, however, the suspense will last for weeks, as each of the telescope’s nearly 400 assembly steps are completed.

The original launch date for the JWST was planned for 2007, but the telescope’s complexities have resulted in a number of delays. The film gives viewers a good sense of the frustrations the team has experienced as they worked to overcome new technical challenges, and it successfully conveys the pressure felt by all involved to make sure the $10 billion mission will succeed.

The women and men working on JWST who were interviewed for this film spoke of the call to explore, to be a part of something bigger than what any individual, or even any individual nation, can accomplish. JWST is a multinational effort, a collaboration of the space agencies of the US, Canada, and Europe, and astronomers worldwide are already applying for observing time. This will be the first telescope capable of detecting biosignatures in an exoplanet atmosphere, bringing us one step closer to answering the age-old question “Are we alone in the Universe?” The exoplanet community is excited and prepared.

Near the end of the film, climate activist Greta Thunberg is shown encouraging an audience not to forget about Earth in our haste to find other habitable planets. “We demand a safe future, is that too much to ask?” she implores. For the foreseeable technological future, humans will remain bound to the Solar System. Even Mars, the most habitable planet in our Solar System besides Earth, makes winter in Antarctica look like a summer beach resort.

Still, the prospect of finding life—even microbial life—on another world beckons. Amid a hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars and planets, it is absurd to think we are alone.

About the author

The reviewer is at Jesus College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3DW, UK.