Teen Discovers New Planet 3 Days into NASA Internship


Colleges seem to be more and more competitive. To succeed in this environment, high school students are taking part in a slew of different opportunities and programs. Teen internships in particular are on the rise, and it’s not hard to see why. Internships can give students both job experience and an advantage when going into an interview or applying for scholarships or exciting opportunities. A survey by Millennial Branding and Internships.com revealed that 77% of high school students are interested in volunteering for work experience compared to 63% of college students.
Wolf Cukier, 17, from Scarsdale, New York, was one of the 77% of students. He obtained an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland after his junior year at Scarsdale High School. His job? Evaluate data from outer space coming in through TESS: the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
TESS “is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system, including those that could support life,” says the NASA website. TESS finds these planets using the transit method: a method that looks for dips in the brightness of stars. These dips could signal to scientists that a planet or some other object is passing (transiting) in front of a star allowing scientists to calculate how large the planet is by how much the star is dimmed as well as what the planet’s orbit is by measuring how long the star is dimmed. The satellite is expected to catalog as many as 20,000 new planets before its mission is over.
Occasionally solar systems will have a star with a transit too small to detect. In this case, human eyes are needed to spot the subtle patterns that the algorithms cannot. It was this type of solar system Cukier was looking at when he discovered a new planet in a solar system with one large star that was easy to see and one small star that was not. To top it all off, the two suns eclipsed each other fairly regularly making it extremely difficult to notice smaller objects passing in front of the stars.
When he first noticed the transit that would later be identified as the planet TOI 1338 b, Cukier thought it was simply another eclipse as one sun passed in front of the other. But as he looked closer, he realized that the timing wasn’t quite right for that. This was when the 17 year old first began to suspect the presence of a planet in the system.
Cukier notified his mentor, Veselin Kostov, about what he had seen, and the two spent hours verifying and checking their information to make sure what they saw was real. Even after that, it took about three months of evaluating data and involving researchers from across the nation to officially confirm that a new planet had been discovered. The planet was then featured in a panel discussion in Honolulu at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
TOI 1338 b is a fairly large planet (6.9 times larger than earth), and exists about 1,300 light years away. What makes this planet truly special; however, is not its size or distance from human life. TOI 1338 b is the first discovered planet to orbit around two stars. If someone were to look up while on the planet, they would see two suns in the sky – not unlike a certain planet from Star Wars. Unfortunately, TOI 1338 b is said to be most likely uninhabitable. So even if technology eventually advanced enough for humans to travel that far, it would sadly still be impossible to gaze out at the setting suns the same way Luke Sykwalker did.
After graduation, Cukier plans to study astrophysics or physics. He currently has not decided which college he would like to go to, but after accomplishing so much, he most likely will have plenty of universities from which to choose.