By: April Carson
Wolf Cukier is not your average high school junior. During his summer internship he landed an incredible opportunity to work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland! He spent two months there this year as part of the program and it was amazing seeing all that goes into making sure space continues beyond Earth’s atmosphere- from launching rockets with physicists who study gravity waves, to working on data analysis tools used by scientists around world.
Wolf's passion for space was already strong enough to land him a spot as the first high school intern at Goddard, but he didn't stop there. This summer Wolf is taking his skills a step further and working with a team that discovered a planet six times larger than Earth! The discovery will change what we know about planets in our galaxy.
His first task was to analyze changes in star brightness detected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, better known as TESS, as part of the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science effort. (The citizen science project enables non-NASA employees to assist in the search for new planets.) On only his third day of work, Cukier learned about a new world.
The discovery of the planet, now named "TOI 1338 b," at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting was announced last Tuesday by NASA on their website, after verifying Cukier's work, submitting a paper that Cukier co-authored for scientific review and announcing the teenager's findings.
“When I was looking through the data for everything that the volunteers had checked off as an eclipsing binary, a pair of stars circling around each other and eclipsing each other on every orbit, I came across TOI 1338. It took me about three days to complete my internship. When I initially thought it was a stellar eclipse, but it had some weird properties in the data. I started to wonder if it was a planet,” Cukier said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
“I noticed a dip, or a transit, from the TOI 1338 system, and that was the first indication of a planet," Cukier tells NBC 4 New York. “I initially observed a dip and called it "cool," but after looking at the complete data from the telescope at that star, I and my mentor observed a second dip and we knew we were onto something.”
TOI 1338 b is 6.9 times larger than Earth (between Neptune and Saturn in size) and is located in the constellation Pictor, 1,300 light-years from Earth, according to NASA. The sun's distance from Earth ranges from seven to nine light-minutes.
The first planet discovered by the TESS system that is classified as a circumbinary planet is TOI 1338 b, which revolves around two stars. One of the stars is 10 percent bigger than the Sun and orbits its companion every 15 days. An "eclipsing binary" comprises TOI 1338 b and its two stars.
In an interview with News 12, Cukier compared his find to "Star Wars." “I discovered a planet. It has two stars that it revolves around,” he said. “So, if you think of Luke Skywalker's home world, Tatooine, from 'Star Wars,' it's similar. Every sunset, there's two suns.”
The planet has not yet been officially named by NASA, but Cukier takes pride in the discovery, which he said proves that "anyone can do it."
TOI 1338 b is difficult to detect because conventional software may confound them with eclipses, which is why the assistance of interns like Cukier is so important.
“These are the sorts of signals that algorithms have difficulty with,” Veselin Kostov, a Goddard research scientist, tells NASA. “The human eye is terrific at finding patterns in data, particularly non-timely ones such as those observed in transits from these systems.”
Declan was the first student to ever be accepted into MIT, and he intends to make history again. “My top three choices are Princeton, MIT, and Stanford,” Declan told News 12.
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