When working as interns, most teenagers hope to get the morning coffee and bagels for their superiors, and they certainly do not expect to do something that would make headlines. But that is exactly what happened to Wolf Cukier, a 17-year-old intern at NASA. He discovered a new planet, and that too on the third day of his internship at the space agency. The planet, now named “TOI 1338 b,” is almost seven times larger than Earth, and it orbits not one but two stars! It is the very first circumbinary planet that NASA’s TESS system has found.
Cukier got a two-month internship at NASA during his junior year at New York’s Scarsdale High School, and he traveled to Greenbelt, Maryland in the summer of 2019 to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center. In his first assignment there, he worked on the citizen science project called “Planet Hunters TESS.” A citizen science project is sponsored by different organizations, and it allows non-scientists to contribute to on-going scientific research. Planet Hunters TESS employs the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, also known as TESS. Cukier was tasked with examining the brightness variations of stars as captured by the TESS system.
His job was to go through the data that volunteers had marked as “eclipse binary,” which is a stellar system where two stars orbit each other, and from our point of view, eclipse each other during each orbit. Around three days into the project, he noticed something rather strange – a dip or transit in the TOI 1338 binary-star system. What seemed like a stellar eclipse at first turned out to be a planet that was previously unknown to scientists.
According to the official NASA statement, TOI 1338 b is located in the constellation called “Pictor,” which is around 1,300 light-years away from our own planet. To comprehend how far that is, you need to know that the Sun is merely seven to nine light-minutes away from Earth. TOI 1338 b is also 6.9 times bigger than Earth, and it is somewhere between the size of Saturn and Neptune. However, the most interesting thing about this newly discovered planet is that it orbits two stars. The stars revolve around each other, and each orbit takes 15 days to complete. One of the two stars is also 10% bigger than the Sun.
Being a Star Wars fan, Cukier compared TOI 1338 b to Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet, which also happens to be a circumbinary planet, meaning it orbits around two stars. Much like Tatooine in Star Wars, TOI 1338 b would also have a double sunset. The teenager also has a telescope and several Star Wars posters in his bedroom.
NASA announced the discovery of TOI 1338 b at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting and on their website, confirming Cukier’s contribution. The space agency also submitted the paper that the teenager had co-authored for scientific review. It is the very first circumbinary planet captured by the TESS system. Planets like these are hard to detect since typical software systems confuse these for stellar eclipses. That is why interns such as Cukier are so valuable to the project.
Cukier, who has already made history, is now a senior in high school, and he is making plans for his future. He hopes to get into Stanford, MIT, or Princeton and is planning to pursue a career in astrophysics and physics.