The Universe is fascinating. Billions of stars, millions of planets, and the vastness of space attract our attention and make us want to contribute to science. Documentaries about the Universe help to show the greatness of the galaxies and the awe-inspiring cosmos that scientists are still trying to explain.
Some docs focus on incredible graphics and stunning visuals. Others focus on explaining why the Universe is the way it is. The best ones combine everything: stunning visuals, excellent explanations, awesome music, and great hosts to deliver truly worthwhile content.
Here is a list of some of the best documentaries about the Universe. Because, as William Shatner once suggested in his role as Captain Kirk, space really is the final frontier. After watching all of these, you might just want to become an astronaut. Or perhaps not. Either way, we’re sure these docs will inspire you to think about the worlds beyond our own.
2015: The Year of Pluto
Let’s start with the recent #PlutoFlyby mission by the New Horizons probe. The probe has already delivered photos of Pluto and is expected to send back more data that is sure to capture our attention. Space is cool again! Finally.
— Popular Science (@PopSci) July 17, 2015
A fascinating one-hour documentary was made before the probe set out on its mission to give us answers about how the journey started and why it matters. Interviews with Dr. James Green, Mark Showalter, and John Spencer give us great explanations on the hard science, and why the probe is an important tool to finding answers about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the donut-shaped region of icy objects.
Before New Horizons became the most popular man-made object in the cosmos, the Hubble Space Telescope was all the rave. Incredible images from the telescope were transmitted to scientists after it was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990. The still-operational spacecraft has been taking extremely high-resolution images of space and time, often leading to breakthroughs in astrophysics such as measuring the rate of expansion in the Universe. How cool is that?
If you want to see the awesomeness of space captured by different telescopes, including Hubble, you should watch The Age of Hubble.
BBC Horizon: Voyager Encounter with Jupiter
We can’t talk about New Horizons and Hubble without mentioning Voyager, the two space probes launched “to extend the NASA exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence, and possibly beyond.”
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) created a documentary to explain Voyager’s Jupiter mission, which occurred in 1979. The 1980 documentary does a great job of explaining the probes’ missions, with additional information about Jupiter’s moons, the Great Red Spot, and more also being explained.
Knowing that the probes started on their journey more than 30 years ago, are still being tracked, and will eventually make contact with another star is impressive. Watching how the Voyagers got started is even more impressive, making this film a true must see.
Is math an invention or a man-made discovery? That is the main question explored in this PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) documentary that aired in April 2015. The doc follows “math from Pythagoras to Einstein and beyond,” with astrophysicist and writer Mario Livio helping to explain “the great math mystery”.
This is a must-watch documentary for anyone interested in math’s place in the Universe, and keen to hear about what we might discover next.
In 2008, a fascinating documentary was broadcast on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. The visually stunning space ride takes the audience on a trip to the very edge of the Universe and explains the beautiful-but-extreme nature of the cosmos. The American version is narrated by Alec Baldwin, with Sean Pertwee narrating the British version.
Stephen Hawking is one of the most acclaimed scientists of this generation. His insights into the Universe are ones that many people want to hear. The 2010 TV mini-series written by the British physicist features Aliens, Time Travel, and The Story of Everything, with incredible graphics and interesting explanations from the theoretical physicist and cosmologist.
“Now is a good time to be alive, I think. We may only be an advanced breed of monkey, living on a small planet, but we are able to contemplate the universe as a whole, which makes us very special.” Stephen Hawking, cosmologist
There’s nothing not to like — great storylines, cool cinematography, and exceptional insights from Hawking himself. Do yourself a favor and check it out, you won’t be disappointed.
Through the Wormhole is a science TV series narrated and hosted by actor Morgan Freeman. It explores the deepest mysteries of the universe, with explanations from renowned scientists on string theory, the beginnings of life, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and more. The thought-provoking episodes seek to answer the big questions: Is Time Travel Possible?, What Happened Before the Beginning?, Are Robots the Future of Human Evolution?, and Is Reality Real?, among others.
With a heady mix of personal stories and the help of renowned scientists, Freeman is able to give us a simplified and equally interesting insight into these dense subject matters. Which makes this more than worth watching.
This 13-part television series inspired millions of viewers, and is often referred to as the best space documentary that there is, ever was, or ever will be. Cosmos: A Personal Journey is hosted by Carl Sagan and aired in 1980 on PBS, spending the next 10 years as the most-watched program on American public television and winning two Emmys and a Peabody award. It has aged rather well, remaining thought-provoking and educational, and is sure to interest anyone wanting to learn about the cosmos.
Neil deGrasse Tyson was one of the people inspired by Sagan’s Cosmos. To mark his appreciation, Tyson presented a sequel along similar lines, with updated information and graphics. Just like the 1980s original, this 13-part sequel also won a Peabody and other television awards.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a must-see documentary and offers a fresh look into what Carl Sagan wanted to teach us. Namely, that “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”.
Anyone interested in learning about the Universe is also likely to be interested in aliens. Many documentaries have been made on the subject, but Out of the Blue is considered to be one of the most comprehensive films looking at the possibility of life on other planets. It explores the idea that we are not alone in the Universe, with an educational look into the chances that other worlds with intelligent life are out there just waiting to be discovered.
Even if you consider yourself a skeptic, after watching Out of the Blue you may just be convinced that aliens are out there.
Now Is a Good Time to Be Alive
Stephen Hawking has previously stated, “now is a good time to be alive.” And he’s correct in his assessment. We have finally started to invest more time and money into understanding the cosmos, space is cool once again, and there are a surprising number of future space missions to look forward to.
All of this activity is sure to lead to even more entertaining and educational documentaries being produced in the future. Which is something we should all get excited about.
Which one of these documentaries about space is your favorite? Are there any documentaries we didn’t mention that you personally think should have made the list? Please let us know in the comments section below. After all, this is a conversation, not a lecture.