Night Sky Gaze
Artist rendering of a binary star system

Teen Discovers New Planet While Interning With NASA

Only three days after he began his internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, 17-year-old Wolf Cukier discovered a planet. If that’s not reaching for the stars, I don’t know what is.

The teen was tasked with going through data on star brightness using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) when he noticed something was wrong. It turned out that he had discovered a circumbinary planet 6.9 times larger than Earth that orbited around two stars.

The Discovery

The high school senior was making notes about extremities in the binaries and said, “…when I saw this one, I put 10 asterisks next to it.” After he flagged the discovery in his notes to his research mentors, Cukier, along with other scientists, spent weeks confirming his theory.

According to NASA, discoveries of circumbinary planets are rare and difficult as they can only be detected during transit events, causing the stars to show a decrease in brightness.

In this instance, the two stars, TOI 1338 orbit one another every 15 days. The planet, dubbed TOI 1338-b, has a transit event with its suns every 93 to 95 days. The discovery was difficult to prove, and Cukier said, “Our confidence went up and down a couple of times, but by the end of the internship, we were confident that what we found was a planet.”

The discovery was the first time the TESS program discovered a planet in orbit of two stars. Cukier, along with his mentors, have written a paper about the discovery. They are currently awaiting a science journal to publish it, but their work was featured at a panel at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu.

What’s Next for the Teen?

After making a once-in-a-lifetime discovery on only his third day as an intern, Cukier said he plans to continue his research and stay in touch with his NASA mentors. He told reporters that “[f]uture research would involve finding more planets,” going onto emphasize that “We don’t have a large sample size of binary system planets.”

No matter where the teen ends up after high school, he can now put “planet discovery” on his resume after finding the new world. The teen also found it humorous that he didn’t discover anything else during the remainder of the internship, but day three proved to be one astronomical discovery for the books.

Kristy Shaver