Hour-Long Documentary Chronicles James Webb’s Journey Into Space

NOVA, an award-winning science series from PBS, has premiered a new special that chronicles the journey of the James Webb Space Telescope through space through the capture of its incredible first photos.

The one-hour film titled Ultimate Space Telescope follows more than two decades of development leading up to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December 2021 and goes behind the scenes of what documentarians call the “agonizing, step-by-step process” of its deployment in space.

The documentary premiered at 9:00 p.m. EDT on PBS but is available to stream for free on NOVA’s YouTube channel, the PBS video app, and on PBS.com.

James Webb Space Telescope mirror seen in full bloom | Image credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

As part of the documentary launch, NOVA shared nine fascinating facts about the telescope that are explained in the film:

1) The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is by far the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built. Weighing seven tons with a height of 28 feet. It casts a massive shadow over its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, with a mirror measuring 21 feet in diameter, which rests on a one-of-a-kind sunshade the size of a tennis court. Due to its size, scientists had to build the JWST so that it folded up to fit inside the rocket’s nose cone, to be deployed once it entered space. This is called an “origami” telescope.

2) The JWST’s mirror is made up of 18 gold-plated segments that unfolded and adjusted after launch. Engineers used gold – a thin layer consisting of less than two ounces over the entire surface of the mirror – because it is remarkably reflective to infrared light.

Cryogenic testing of the primary mirror segment | Image Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

3) The JWST is an incredibly sensitive and high precision instrument. In space, the telescope must be kept at a freezing temperature of minus 394 degrees Fahrenheit. On Earth, it had to be kept impeccably clean: a single human hair could threaten the proper functioning of the telescope.

4) Humans have only been as far from Earth as the Moon, but the JWST is stationed four times farther. It is about 3,000 times farther from Earth than the Hubble Space Telescope. This stat highlights the incredibly high stakes of the JWST mission: unlike Hubble, the JWST telescope is too far away to reach for upgrades or repairs.

James Webb Space Telescope cryogenic mirror test | Image Credit NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett

5) The nearest galaxies are thousands of light years away, so the images taken by Webb will show the galaxies not as they are today, but as they were thousands, years ago. millions and even billions of years. The telescope will allow astronomers to see deep “into the past”, revealing the most distant galaxies humans have ever observed.

6) It took more than two decades for the $10 billion telescope to get to the launch pad. This monumental effort was made possible through the contributions of thousands of scientists and engineers, as well as more than 300 partners, from 14 countries and 29 US states.

Webb Telescope exits Chamber A after cryogenic testing | Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

7) Originally scheduled to launch in 2007, the JWST mission was stalled by heavy cost overruns, failed tests and even a natural disaster. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in 2017 amid a crucial test, the storm threatened scientists’ access to power, but they persevered.

8) The JWST mission is incredibly risky. The scientists identified 344 single points of failure during the launch and deployment phase of the telescope, that is, 344 points at which the machine had to work perfectly, otherwise the whole telescope would not work. Countless pins had to be released, latches had to lock, and hundreds of mechanisms had to unfold. After rigorous testing, the mission successfully launched on Christmas Day 2021 and embarked on a direct trajectory to an orbit approximately one million kilometers from Earth.

James Webb Space Telescope mirrors undergo cryogenic testing | Image Credit: Ball Aerospace

9) The first images designed to test the functionality of the telescope alluded to its power. For example, one image focused on a star near our galaxy, the Milky Way, but the telescope’s instruments are so sensitive that the image revealed unseen galaxies in the background.

The sunshade membrane of the James Webb Space Telescope | Image credit: Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems

“Working with NASA to document this mission has been incredibly exhilarating,” said Nova Producer Terri Randall of Randall Productions.

“Like any great undertaking, there were many setbacks in the creation of this groundbreaking telescope, so it was important that we show how difficult the two decades leading up to launch and deployment were for the JWST team. I’m thrilled to tell their story and now have the opportunity to be alongside them on July 12, capturing the moment NASA reveals the first images from the mission.

Ultimate Space Telescope is the first of two films that NOVA has planned. A second is currently in production and is set to premiere on PBS in early 2023. This film will delve even further into Webb’s findings – following his developments in the coming months – and reveal what they could mean for our understanding. of the universe.

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