Summarize the complex logistics of designing and building a multi-billion dollar satellite into an informative and entertaining film, Nathaniel Kahns “The hunt for planet B.“Is a fun and insightful look at the development of the James Webb Space Telescope due later this year, as well as the scientists and engineers who contributed to it.” The focus is on the contributions of many women to the process, including MIT professor Sara Seagar, Webb engineer Amy Lo, astronomer Maggie Turbull, and Jill Tarter, who inspired Ellie Arroway for the novel and film.Contact“Kahn’s film oscillates between an overview of exoplanets, planets outside of our solar system that may sustain life, and the massive process of assembling the Webb telescope.” The Hunt for Planet B “is a brief, thoughtful ruminating in the cosmos that the process humanized and demonstrated the scale of such an enterprise.
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The film begins by tracking the institutional history of exoplanet exploration, an area that in many ways is still in its infancy. As Dr. Seagar reminded her that when she applied for a job outside of graduate school, she was often pushed back because astronomers would scramble at the idea of looking for life outside of our solar system. Kahn can well understand how the emerging field has grown in recent years and notes that within a few decades we no longer had any concrete evidence of exoplanets to be able to map neighboring solar systems.
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Jill Tarter, who has studied these subjects for longer than most other subjects, also notes the difference between her scientific work and those searching for aliens, which creates a distinction that outsiders are only too happy to bring together. As Kahn alternates between these women and a few other amateur astronomers, a collective sense of wonder permeates the entire film. These people look for the slightest change in the light of a star across entire solar systems, an often unsuccessful endeavor that is made all the more exciting when they find something.
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While Kahn’s approach is introductory and moves quickly between the establishment of the field, the researchers, and the project, his approach nonetheless emphasizes the people involved in the process and the way in which such an enterprise has interactions between an ever-growing company Requires field of interest groups. More than once, Kahn comes to a congressional hearing at which congressmen insult the scientists for their expensive undertaking and openly decipher the ever inflated budget. As “Planet B” shows, trial and error are critical to the process. As a group of engineers and scientists circling the Webb sunshade and slowly cranking it up so that only one cord would break and the entire mammoth project shut down, one can see the minutiae going into exploration.
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The Webb telescope, the promised replacement for the Hubble, has been in the making for nearly fifteen years and will hopefully be launched in October 2021. The arbitrary deadlines, however, are mainly set by the higher-ups, often missing the beauty of exploration for the tangibility of results. Who knows that the Webb might find when it finally looks into the abyss, but that ignorance is not a flaw in the system, but a reason why people like Seagar do the work that they do.
“Planet B” is sometimes too scattered in its approach and jumps back and forth at breakneck speed between topics and locations as it tries to capture not only science but also the lives of scientists. In attempting to provide a totalizing portrait of Webb in addition to the full scope of exoplanet research, Kahn’s film could take too much on itself. However, the film never forgets the miracle that keeps these people going. Many admit hoping that they will find life on another planet, be it microbial or otherwise, but almost all acknowledge that the chances that they will live to see the fruits of their research are slim. For Seagar, Lo, Turnbull, and Tarter, the process is the most insightful part. If “Planet B” is less than a sum of its parts, ends before the Webb starts, and does not exhibit a complete closure, it is still a wonderful observation portrait of exploration. [B+]
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