We’re at SXSW… kind of! The event is taking place virtually this year so while we’re all watching movies online we’re still bringing you coverage of the best film festival of the year. Check out all of our SXSW 2021 coverage.
It’s been three decades since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into Earth’s low orbit, and the images it has provided since then have expanded the discussion around space and what else is out there. Over the past 15 years, the world’s top scientists and engineers have been working on the James Webb Space Telescope which is a hundred times more powerful than the Hubble, and will be deployed a million miles from the Earth, four times as far as the distance from the Earth to the moon. The Hunt for Planet B explores the creation of the JMST while getting very existential with its subjects throughout.
The Hunt for Planet B
Director: Nathanial Kahn
Release date: March 18, 2021 (SXSW)
The beauty of space is the unknown, and there’s dripping enthusiasm from all those interviewed about the potential of not only a habitable planet but the idea of other life. The goal of the JMST is to use its infrared tech to look farther into space than ever before, measuring light signatures that scientists can then decipher into different atmospheric gasses and discover if there is water. The telescope is so powerful it would be able to detect the heat given off by a bumblebee on the moon from Earth.
Mixed in with the marvels of technology are conversations with astrophysicists, engineers, and a Nobel prize winner to help elaborate on just how extraordinary this is, and can be. Focusing on an area around a red dwarf star dubbed Trappist-1, the search for exoplanets (planets outside our own Milky Way) will take place nearly forty light-years away from Earth. Because it uses infrared, the telescope and its golden panels need to remain cool, so engineers built a multi-layered shield that will reach hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit on one side while keeping the telescope itself extremely cold. It’s tedious tasks with even more tedious testing. Everything has to work the first time when it’s deployed in space. If not, there’s no one to repair it, and it’s years and years (and millions and millions of dollars) down the drain.
The film spends time in the bureaucracy of tax dollars at work and the threat of climate change. Hearings in front of a congressional committee saw leaders questioning the use of taxpayer money for the JWST. Clips of the young climate advocate Greta Thunberg appear to remind viewers of the climate change debate, yet call into question if humans can take care of another planet when we’re having trouble taking care of the one we have. The search for another habitable planet may be on the radar, but opening up the extent to which the universe can be viewed can also provide answers about the past.
The Hunt for Planet B not only highlights the technology behind the JWST–a true marvel of what a group of intelligent and strong-willed minds can accomplish–but the debate about why this is such an important experiment. At times the documentary feels a little lost or off track; there’s a moment where one of the subjects talks about dating and first kisses that feels out of place for the topic at hand. Director Nathanial Kahn does creatively tie that in, but it certainly felt confusing in the moment. For those with even a mild interest in the universe and enjoy conversations around what is out there, The Hunt for Planet B provides a lengthy look at the preparation of a technological marvel and the hope of what could be found by those involved.