Credit: NOVA


ULTIMATE SPACE TELESCOPE introduces viewers to the engineers responsible for building, launching, and deploying the most ambitious telescope of all time, chronicling the ups and downs of the events leading to its launch. The film gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the nerve-wracking, step-by-step process of each critical deployment, leading up to a thrilling success: JWST’s first image: A picture of a single star that turned out to be much more—an image revealing never-before-seen galaxies.

The film will include the latest developments from the JWST mission, right up until the moment it airs on PBS. NASA is set to release the first full-color images and spectroscopic data from the telescope on July 12, some of which NOVA will add to the special just hours before its broadcast. It will also feature footage of reactions to JWST’s findings from the scientists and engineers who worked on the mission. A second NOVA film about the JWST, currently in production, is set to premiere on PBS in early 2023. That film will delve even deeper into Webb’s discoveries—following its developments in the upcoming months—and reveal what they could mean for our understanding of the universe.

Behind The Scenes / Inside Look

Fascinating facts from the film:

  • The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is by far the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built, weighing in at a whopping seven tons with a height of 28 feet. It casts a massive shadow over its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope featuring a mirror measuring 21 feet in diameter, which sits on top of a first-of-its-kind sunshield the size of a tennis court.Because of its size, scientists had to build the JWST so it folds up to fit inside the nose cone of the rocket, to be deployed once it enters space. It’s known as an “origami” telescope.


  • The JWST’s mirror is made up of 18 gold-plated segments that unfold and adjust to shape after its launch. Engineers used gold–a thin layer made up of less than two ounces across the mirror’s entire surface–because it is remarkably reflective for infrared light.


  • The JWST is an incredibly sensitive, high-precision instrument. While in space, the telescope needs to be kept at a frigid 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.


  • Humans have only been as far away from Earth as the Moon, but the JWST is stationed four times farther away—it’s about 3,000 times farther away from Earth than the Hubble Space Telescope. This statistic highlights the incredibly high stakes of the JWST mission: Unlike Hubble, the JWST telescope is too far away to be reached for upgrades or repairs.


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


  • It took more than two decades for the $10 billion telescope to make it to the launch pad, an effort made by the contributions from thousands of scientists and engineers, along with over 300 partners, from 14 countries and 29 U.S. states.


  • 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 in the midst of a crucial test, the storm threatened the scientists’ access to power and electricity—yet they persevered.


  • The JWST mission is incredibly risky. 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 perform perfectly, or else the entire telescope would not function. Countless pins needed to release, latches had to lock into place, and hundreds of mechanisms needed to deploy. After rigorous testing, the mission successfully launched on Christmas Day 2021, and set off on a direct path to an orbit approximately one million miles from Earth.


  • Early images designed to test the functionality of the telescope have hinted at its power. For example, one image focused on a nearby star within our Milky Way galaxy, but the telescope’s instruments are so sensitive, the image revealed never-before seen galaxies in the background.

ULTIMATE SPACE TELESCOPE premieres Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 9pm ET/8C. The film will also be available for streaming online at PBS.org/nova, on NOVA’s YouTube channel, and on the PBS video app, and available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast, and VIZIO. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries, and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit thePBS Passport FAQ website.

ULTIMATE SPACE TELESCOPE is a NOVA Production by Terri Randall Productions for GBH in association with ARTE France. Written, Produced, and Directed by Terri Randall. Co-Produced and Edited by Jedd Ehrmann. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH. ULTIMATE SPACE TELESCOPE is distributed internationally by PBS International.

Original funding for ULTIMATE SPACE TELESCOPE is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the NOVA Science Trust with support from Anna and Neil Rasmussen and the Kaia and Jonathan Goldstein Family Fund, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.

Starting On:
July 13, 2022
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