Hunting The Edge Of Space

1 April 2010



Spring 2010 marks two remarkable anniversaries: the 20th anniversary of the launch of the most famous telescope in history, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the 400th anniversary of the publication of Galileo’s “Starry Messenger,” a book that started a revolution in our understanding of our place in the cosmos. What began as a simple curiosity -- two spectacle lenses held a foot apart -- has ultimately reshaped human thought across science, philosophy and religion.

“Hunting the Edge of Space” tells the story of one profound discovery after another, as telescopes improved and peered deeper and deeper into space. As Dr. Michael Turner, University of Chicago, states in the film, “The telescope may be the most interesting scientific instrument that we’ve ever made.” The invention of the telescope marks the division between the modern world and the world of our ancestors. Other inventions have changed the way we live, but only the telescope has altered our understanding of our place in the universe.

“Hunting the Edge of Space” is a global adventure of discovery, detailing the history of the telescope and the astronomical breakthroughs it has made possible. In Hour 1, airing on Tuesday, April 6, historical reenactments bring to life key figures and events, as Galileo -- for the first time in human history -- sees craters on the surface of the Moon, observes Jupiter and its orbiting moons and sketches the changing phases of Venus. His discoveries confirm that the Sun lies at the center of our solar system, demoting Earth and revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos. We meet William Herschel and his devoted sister Caroline, the most prominent astronomers of the late 18th century. Together they discovered the planet Uranus, built a telescope that remained the world’s largest for decades, and, over thousands of nights dedicated to observing the sky, first gauged the shape of our Milky Way galaxy. The discoveries of the past resonate in cutting edge research today, in stories of NASA’s Cassini mission, which provided new answers to age-old mysteries of Saturn’s rings. Discoveries of new planets in our solar system in earlier centuries continue to inspire today’s planet hunters, like Geoff Marcy and David Charbonneau who are finding for new planets around distant stars -- planets that may even resemble Earth.

Hour 2, airing April 13, begins at the dawn of the 20th century, when astronomers still thought the Milky Way was the entire universe. That was before George Ellery Hale, who built the greatest telescopes on Earth, and Edwin Hubble, who used Hale’s 100-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson, California, to prove that the universe is populated by untold numbers of galaxies that lie far beyond the confines of our Milky Way. His research is again echoed today, as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey captures the light from hundreds of galaxies at once, creating a catalogue of galaxies that is an indispensable tool for astronomical research around the globe. Hubble’s next discovery with the Mt. Wilson telescope was as profound a paradigm shift as Galileo, 300 years earlier. When he found that the galaxies are all racing away from each other -- that space itself is expanding, he set the stage for the discovery of the Big Bang.

New questions needed new kinds of telescopes. We meet Nobel Prize winner Arno Penzias, who, with Robert Wilson, discovered the echo of the Big Bang with one of the first radio telescopes. When the Hubble Space Telescope begins to send back images from its orbit high above Earth’s atmosphere, we see the universe as never before. Its famous Deep Field photograph shows us the universe shortly after the Big Bang. And we meet Alex Filippenko, one of the astronomers on the team that used the gigantic Keck Telescope in Hawaii to capture distant supernovae and unveil the existence of Dark Energy, the most mysterious force in the universe. Dark Energy and Dark Matter, which was discovered in the middle of the 20th century, are today’s most profound cosmological riddles. Together they make up nearly 95% of the universe, while the visible universe -- all the stars and planets we can see in the night sky -- account for a mere 5%. It is a confounding mystery, which modern telescopes continue to investigate, as we continue “Hunting the Edge of Space”.

“Hunting the Edge of Space” is produced for NOVA by TPT National Productions, St. Paul, and Brook Lapping Productions, London, in association with Green Umbrella LLC. Major funding for the production is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Additional funding by the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

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The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is endorsed by the United Nations and the International Council of Science.