Plunge into an immersive IMAX movie featuring the James Webb Space Telescope

In the new IMAX film Deep Sky, a protostar shines from the center of a dark cloud, the phantom galaxy swirls, and the dusty space clouds of the Cosmic Cliffs of Carina tower like mountain peaks. Also, scientists cry. The film centers on the James Webb Space Telescope’s visual legacy and the people behind it. At one point, NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn gets to the heart of why seeing the Cosmic Cliffs of Carina is such an emotional journey. “This has always been there. It’s always been out there, but we’re just now able to see it. We now have this new telescope that’s opened up our eyes to let us see something we haven’t seen before.”

dusty space clouds with shining stars at the clouds peaks
Astronomers using JWST combined the capabilities of the telescope’s two cameras to
create a never-before-seen view of a star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), this combined image reveals previously invisible areas of star birth. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/CSA

While not quite as challenging as building a space telescope, making Deep Sky posed a novel challenge to the filmmakers, Nathaniel Kahn noted: “…Every time we’d start to get close to finishing, NASA would release a new amazing image, and we’d have to find a way to work that in!” As the film’s writer, director, and producer, Kahn and team were finishing the project in September of 2023, combining digital cinematography by NASA, ESA, and commercial satellite launch company Arianespace with animations and graphics created specifically for IMAX. If you want to see the stereotypes of the stoic scientists challenged and bask in the glory of space, you can catch the IMAX experience starting Friday, April 19. 

The drive to uncover the secrets of the cosmos propels this new telling of JWST’s unfolding story. Here’s what it took to get there.

‘It was waving goodbye’

In the almost two years since those first images were beamed back to planet Earth, it’s easy for casual observers to forget how improbable it was. JWST was initially supposed to launch in 2011 and congress even tried to cancel it that same year over budget concerns. It ultimately took 10,000 people from 14 countries, $10 billion, and 20 years to complete.

[Related: JWST images show off the swirling arms of 19 spiral galaxies.]

“I’ve worked on JWST for 15 years and I’m sort of one of the younger ones working on this telescope,” Straughn tells PopSci. “We faced a lot of challenges along the way and it was an audacious mission. We had to build this enormous telescope that had to be cold and that had to unfold in space. When you describe it, it sounds impossible.”

Multiple technologies needed to be invented to get this game-changer off the ground, including a critical sunshield. Since JWST primarily observes infrared light from faint and very far away objects. It must be kept extremely cold, at about -370 degrees Fahrenheit, to detect these faint signals of heat. The team constructed a five-layer sunshield about the size of a tennis court that protects it from other heat sources like the Earth, sun, and various moons. In the documentary, Amy Lo, the Deputy Director for Vehicle Engineering on JWST for Northrop Grumman, described it as being “SPF one million,” in order to keep it so cold and protected. She noted that there was no “second shot of doing this.”

a diagram of JWST's science instruments
The JWST has a cool side, which faces away from the sun, and a hot side, which faces the sun. CREDIT: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joyce Kang (STScI).

During its launch on Christmas Day 2021, JWST completed over 40 crucial deployments of its various instruments and overcame 344 “single point failures.” If any one of those single points had failed, the entire mission would have ended.

The mission overcame all 344 single point failures and even got an added surprise. About 45 seconds into the launch, they caught the telescope’s power source called the solar array open up. This proved JWST officially had power and the deployment was not something the team planned to be able to see with their own eyes during the launch. Through tears, NASA JWST Program Scientist Eric Smith said, “It was waving goodbye,” in the documentary. 

Back to the big bang

By several accounts, JWST is performing better than expected. It’s standing up against the micrometeoroids–tiny pieces of space dust that can build up on the telescope’s mirrors. The team had a good idea of how frequently the dust would hit the mirrors, but the size of the impacts was more surprising.

[Related: Why a 3,000-mile-long jet stream on Jupiter surprised NASA scientists.]

“What we’ve been able to do to help mitigate this is essentially change the way we’re operating so that as the telescope is facing away from the direction that the micrometeoroids are coming from when we think we could have higher impacts,” Straughn tells PopSci

It has also proven to be more stable and more efficient overall. According to Straughn, JWST has delivered more data in even less time than the team anticipated, revealing some of the most distant galaxies in the universe. These are galaxies that were born just after the big bang about 13.8 billion years ago. JWST has revealed that many are brighter, bigger, and more numerous than astrophysicists previously thought and their black holes are also growing incredibly fast. 

a swirling galaxy
M74 shines at its brightest in this combined optical/mid-infrared image, featuring data from both the Hubble Telescope and JWST. CREDIT: NASA/ESA/CSA.

“There’s an overarching new mystery that’s arisen of why galaxies are growing so big,” says Straughn. “When we find something that we don’t expect, that’s a new problem to solve that will help increase our knowledge about how the universe works.”

Towards the future

JWST built on the success of the Hubble Space Telescope and other observational projects are on our horizon. Scheduled to launch in 2027, the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will explore exoplanets and dark matter. The Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) is also in the early stages of development and will be specifically designed to discover life on other planets. 

[Related: In NASA’s new video game, you are a telescope hunting for dark matter.]

“I think that this telescope launch and these images came along at a perfect time to present a contrast to the bad things that are going on in the world,” says Straughn. “It really is an example of something that’s good, of what we humans can do when we put our hearts and our minds into something that’s for a bigger purpose.”

Deep Sky releases in IMAX theaters nationwide on Friday, April 19.

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