Nova: Season 37, Episode 16

Hunting the Edge of Space: The Mystery of the Milky Way (6 Apr. 2010)

TV Episode  |  TV-G  |   |  Documentary, Biography
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Nova examines the physics of telescope design. Following the development of the telescope over several centuries the program explains the challenges that the major design innovations solved... See full summary »


(story) (as David Axelrod) , (telescript) (as David Axelrod) , 5 more credits »
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Title: Hunting the Edge of Space: The Mystery of the Milky Way (06 Apr 2010)

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Episode credited cast:
Louise Alexander
Jim Bennett ...
Himself - Director: Museum of the History of Science
Ronald H. Bissinger ...
Himself - Amateur Astronomer (as Ron Bissinger)
Duncan Bonner
David Charbonneau ...
Himself - Associate Professor of Astronomy (as David Charbonneau Ph.D.)
Steven Deproost
Alexei Vladimir Filippenko ...
Himself - Astrophysicist (as Alex Filippenko)
Wendy L. Freedman ...
Herself - Director: Carnegie Institution Observatories (as Wendy Freedman)
Alexandra Hall ...
Herself - Amateur Astronomer
Michael A. Hoskin ...
Himself - Cambridge University (as Michael Hoskin)
William B. Latter ...
Himself - NASA Scientist (as Bill Latter)
Chloe Lucas
Geoff Marcy ...
Himself - Professor of Astronomy
Dan Maxwell
Massimo Mazzotti ...
Himself - Assistant Professor


Nova examines the physics of telescope design. Following the development of the telescope over several centuries the program explains the challenges that the major design innovations solved and the inevitable major discoveries they produced. Written by David Foss

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Amazing space travelogue
1 September 2012 | by (New York City) – See all my reviews

A crystal-clear telling of the 400-year history of the telescope -- an instrument that has transformed the way we view ourselves.

It all started with European spectacle makers who realized that if you held two lenses at a distance from each other you could see far away.

The Venetians put the "spy glass" to military use, employing it to spot enemy ships. It was Galileo's genius to turn the instrument toward the heavens, which previously had only been discerned with the naked eye.

Later called a heretic for it, Galileo discovered that Jupiter had orbiting moons. This was enormously humbling to people who theretofore believed everything revolved around the Earth. Then came Galileo's discovery that Venus circled the sun. Again, a letdown to those who wanted to believe that the Earth was pivotal.

Galileo's crude instrumentation has evolved incredibly. Now the rocket ship Cassini, named after the astronomer who discovered Saturn's rings, is traveling through those rings and transmitting immaculately clear pictures to Earth some 300 million miles away.

This wonderful program also explains how Sir Isaac Newton rejected the fuzzy-making refractory lenses of his day for a telescope using mirrors. That put an end to a previous "space race" over who could build the longest telescope (some reached half as long as a football field because the longer the telescope, the clearer the picture).

We also learn about the clarinetist/amateur astronomer William Herschel 100 years later. Using an especially large mirror, he doubled the size of the known solar system when he discovered Uranus some 1,900 million miles from the sun. Thus began a search for even more planets that continues to this day.

"An extremely profound moment for humanity" occurred in 1995, we are told -- when the first planet outside of our solar system (Exoplanet 51 Pegasis B) was discovered. Now we know of several thousand of them! All within the Milky Way, most are gas giants like Jupiter that orbit too close to their suns to support life.

Amateur astronomers are staking out parts of the sky, patiently observing the light from stars to see if any "wobble" a bit from the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet. The role of these amateurs --Herschel's heirs -- is extremely important because the pros don't have the time to monitor every quadrant of the cosmos.

In this show you'll learn about the Kepler telescope and its three-year mission to find Earth-sized planets orbiting far-away stars. The hope is to find a planet about our size with liquid water -- particularly one that is capable of supporting intelligent life.

In addition there's the Herschel Space Observatory, which is flying a million miles above Earth, working with infrared light so as to take pictures that capture gas and dust rather than just stars. Some of the pictures it's sent back are awe-inspiring. Meanwhile, it continues to map the Milky Way.

Herschel and an "eccentric" named Lord Moss saw "smudges" in the sky that later were discovered to be nebulae, or other galaxies -- another nail in the coffin of the belief that Earth was special in the universe.

"We are discovering a universe we are only beginning to understand," the narrator intones in mentioning the phenomenon of "dark energy." That's something I don't yet understand, but I think it's covered in this series' second episode.

This one, though, is loaded with information and beautifully done. Excellent.

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