SXSW Online 2021 Review: “The Hunt for Planet B”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Nathaniel Kahn
Stars: Janet Arenberg, Jon Arenberg, Natalie Batalha, Natasha Batalha, Jill Tarter

By Joan Amenn

Exoplanets are planets that orbit suns outside our solar system. For years, scientists debated their existence, and then the scientific community highly doubted that they would ever be found even if they did exist. “The Hunt for Planet B” proves the truth of the saying, “If you want something done, put a woman in charge” as it features several brilliant women scientists leading the search for these elusive phenomena. The documentary is a fascinating look at the obstacles to discovery, which often just boil down to a lack of vision, support from the scientific community itself, and a government that waxes and wanes like our moon in its interest.

Jill Tarter, whose work with SETI was the inspiration for the film “Contact” (1997) starring Jodie Foster, pulls no punches when asked if she believes that we are not alone in the universe. She says she is “not doing religion, [she] is doing science.” She adds that if a species does master the ability to travel through space, that is indicative that they have learned to collaborate peacefully, so we as a species should aim to do the same before the two groups meet. It is a wise insight as to the value of scientific research, especially space exploration, which is often questioned for its relevancy. If we as human beings do not strive toward our better natures to cooperate in the growth of our knowledge, what is our alternative? Living in fear and ignorance benefits no one.

The women scientists of “The Hunt for Planet B” show that diversity is a strength as they work toward the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope to continue learning about exoplanets. Their excitement about their work and their fondness for one another as they chat in Zoom meetings about their latest discoveries make for the most enjoyable scenes in the film.

The Webb Space Telescope has been pushed off from launching several times, due in part to budget constraints. Its new launch date is sometime in October 2021. “The Hunt for Planet B” wins over the audience in the scientists’ infectious anticipation for the event. There has already been one exoplanet system found, TRAPPIST-1, and the excitement is palpable to find more. Director Nathaniel Kahn (“The Price of Everything”) gives these brilliant ladies the floor and just steps away to let them impart their knowledge with the world. We need more of this recognition for women’s contributions to science and discovery.


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