17 year-old NASA intern Wolf Cukier was on the third day of his internship at NASA helping out at the space agency in the United States. When he discovered a new planet previously unknown to scientists. So just three days in, when most of us would still be making the tea, he was looking at a solar system many light years away from ours and noticed something blocking the light of two stars.
Cukier joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a summer intern after finishing his junior year at Scarsdale High School in New York State. Cukier said, “I signed up for the science research program, which basically provides a support structure for kids interested in doing research to find a mentor in order to start doing research. So, as part of this program, students are required to find a mentor, like an actual trained scientist.
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So in order to continue in this program, to do research, I sent emails to various researchers in my field throughout the country, and eventually I found someone who referred me to Ravi [Kopparapu, Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] who was my mentor for the summer of 2018 at NASA.
And then, this past summer, I was invited back, but Ravi had other travel stuff he had to do. So I worked with Veselin Kostov [Research Scientist at NASA GSFC, SETI Institute] this past summer, [when] the goal was to find one of these planets. And we just happened to find one pretty quickly.
17-year-old high school student Wolf Cukier made a major discovery, when he noticed the telltale signs of a distant planet orbiting two stars. “At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”
“I gave him a brief outline of what we do, and he learned everything by himself,” Kostov said. “He learned really quickly. He really developed a very good understanding of the field.”
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Cukier had a framework of what to look for based on his exploration of the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project, which allows people to comb through TESS data and categorize star systems, he said. While looking at an image during his internship, he thought something looked “suspicious,” he said, noting that the image had an additional feature that made him alert Kostov.
Cukier and Kostov spent hours verifying that the additional features they were seeing were real, by looking through multiple data sets. “It was just Wolf and me in the first couple of hours, and when we were 99% certain the two traits we saw were real, we started reaching out to colleagues,” Kostov said. The process was much faster than normal, taking about two to three months to confirm Cukier’s discovery as a planet, Kostov said.
When the light from the big star is blocked by the light of the small star, there’s a large dip. And when the small star is blocked by the big star, there is a small dip. So [when there is also] a planet, we generally see the transit when the planet blocks some of the big star’s light. So this planetary transit can look surprisingly similar to the secondary eclipse, because it’s a small thing blocking, like, a bright star. They can sometimes look similar, and they did in this case.
The system had been flagged as an eclipsing binary, where two stars circle around each other and eclipse each other from our point of view. But after going over the data, Cukier realized that a planet was present too.
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“I don’t get to name the planet. My brother had the idea of calling it Wolftopia but I think TOI 1338 b is sufficient”. Cukier, a Star Wars fan, said the way stars appear on TOI 1338 b would be similar to Luke Skywalker’s home of Tatooine, according to the BBC. Now a high school senior, Cukier has his sights set on colleges such as Princeton University, Stanford University, and MIT where he can major in astrophysics or physics. “When I’m there I’m planning to study physics and astrophysics,” he says.
His finding was enough to get other scientists involved. And further inspection revealed a planet that is almost 6.9 times as large as Earth. The two stars orbit each other every 15 days. One is about 10 percent bigger than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun’s mass.
But the newly found planet’s size alone, almost the size of Saturn — makes it unlikely to be livable. Named TOI 1338 b, it is the only planet in the TOI 1338 system, which lies 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor, and orbits its stars every 95 days. TOI 1338 b is not just any planet though, it’s a circumbinary planet. That basically means it is orbiting around two stars, rather than the usual one.
Cukier was viewing data from exoplanet TOI 1338 b, a Saturn-size gas planet that travels in a circumbinary orbit, or around two stars, 1,300 light-years away from our sun, in the constellation Pictor. Cukier spotted the planet using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is tasked with detecting distant planets by spotting when the light from their stellar parents dim as the exoplanets travel in front of the stars, as seen from our perspective. The student’s observations mark the first detection of a planet around two stars using TESS data.
“TESS was designed and launched specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars,” said Paul Hertz, NASA astrophysics division director. TESS initially misclassified the star, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they actually are. But several amateur astronomers, including high school student Alton Spencer — who works with members of the TESS team — identified the error.
“When we corrected the star’s parameters, the sizes of its planets dropped, and we realized the outermost one was about the size of Earth and in the habitable zone,” said Emily Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. A few other similar planets have been discovered before, notably by the Kepler Space Telescope, but this is the first discovered by TESS, which was launched in 2018.
TESS stabilizes on one area of the sky to detect whether objects — planets — pass in front of stars, which causes a temporary drop in the stars’ luminosity. This allows TESS to infer the presence of a planet, its size and orbit.