17-Year-Old Student Discovers A New Planet On The Third Day Of Internship At NASA
During junior year, Wolf Cukier, a junior at Scarsdale High School in New York, received a two-month internship with NASA. So he went to Greenbelt, Maryland’s NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
As part of the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science initiative, his first task was to look into fluctuations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. (The citizen science initiative allows people who aren’t NASA employees to help discover new planets.)
Cukier had only been at his internship for three days when he discovered a new planet. After validating the teenager’s work, submitting a paper co-authored by Cukier for scientific review, and announcing the discovery of the planet, now known as “TOI 1338 b,” during the 235th American Astronomical Society conference, NASA made the announcement on their website.
“I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system in which two stars circle around each other and eclipse each other every orbit,” Cukier, 17, explained. “I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338 about three days into my internship. At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet. “
The first signal of a planet came in the form of a dip, or transit, from the TOI 1338 system. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh, that looked cool,’ but when I looked at the full data from the telescope at that star, my mentor and I noticed three different dips in the system.”
TOI 1338 b is 6.9 times the size of Earth (between Neptune and Saturn) and is located in the constellation Pictor at a distance of about 1,300 light-years from Earth. TOI 1338 b is the TESS system’s first circumbinary planet, meaning it revolves around two stars. Every 15 days, the two stars orbit each other, and one of them is 10% the size of the Sun. An “eclipsing binary” is formed by TOI 1338 b and its two stars.
Circumbinary planets like TOI 1338 b are difficult to find, according to NASA, because standard algorithms may misinterpret them as eclipses, which is why interns like Cukier are so important.
The high school senior is now considering his college options after making history. His top three choices are Princeton, MIT, and Stanford.