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17-year-old discovers a new planet on 3rd day of his NASA internship: 'Like Tatooine from Star Wars'

'At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet!'

17-year-old discovers a new planet on 3rd day of his NASA internship: 'Like Tatooine from Star Wars'
Cover Image Source: (L) Facebook/Wolf Cukier (R) Twitter/@poguehype

Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 24, 2022. It has since been updated.

When Wolf Cukier completed his junior year at Scarsdale High School in New York in 2019 and began working as a summer intern at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It was his responsibility to assess changes in star brightness that were recorded by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and uploaded to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen research project.

“I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circle around each other and from our view eclipse each other every orbit,” Cukier told NASA. “About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338. At first, I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet!”



In an interview with CNBC, the 17-year-old shared, “I noticed a dip, or a transit, from the TOI 1338 system, and that was the first signal of a planet,” Cukier explained. “I first saw the initial dip and thought, ‘Oh that looked cool,’ but then when I looked at the full data from the telescope at that star, I, and my mentor also noticed, three different dips in the system.”

Cukier, a huge fan of "Star Wars," with framed posters of the movie in his bedroom, feels like his discovery is akin to that of “Star Wars.” “I discovered a planet. It has two stars which it orbits around,” he said. “So, if you think to Luke’s homeworld, Tatooine, from ‘Star Wars,’ it’s like that. Every sunset, there’s gonna be two stars setting.”



NASA estimates that TOI 1338 b is 6.9 times as big as Earth (between Neptune and Saturn in size) and is around 1,300 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pictor. The distance from the Earth to the sun is around seven to nine light minutes. The first circumbinary planet—one that revolves around two stars—to be discovered by the TESS system is TOI 1338 b. One of the two stars, which orbits the other one every 15 days, is 10% bigger than the Sun. An "eclipsing binary" is what TOI 1338 b and its two stars collectively are referred to as.

Radial velocity surveys, which gauge motion along our line of sight, had already been used to study TOI 1338 from the ground. This historical data was used by Kostov's team to study the system and validate the planet. For at least the next 10 million years, its orbit is stable. However, due to changes in the orbit's angle to our planet, the planet's transit will stop after November 2023 and start again eight years later.



According to NASA, circumbinary planets like TOI 1338 b are challenging to find because standard software can mistake them for eclipses. For this reason, assistance from interns like Cukier is crucial. “These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,” Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at Goddard tells NASA. “The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.”

The high school senior, after having made history, is now exploring his college options and has stated that his "top three choices are Princeton, MIT, and Stanford."

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