Wolf Cukier, age 17, was offered a two-month internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland while entering his senior year of high school.
According to the Washington Post, while working on his first assignment, examining the variations in brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), he made a discovery that would go down in history.
Only three days into his internship, Cukier discovered a new planet.
The news was announced by NASA on their website this week along with the paper that Cukier co-authored for scientific review and announcing the discovery of the new planet, now named “TOI 1338 b,” at the 235th American Astronomical Society Meeting.
“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,” 17-year-old Cukier tells 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.”
“I noticed a dip, or a transit, from the TOI 1338 system, and that was the first signal of a planet,” Cukier explains to NBC 4 New York. “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.”
According to the scientific paper, TOI 1338 b is located around 1,300 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pictor. As a frame of reference, the Earth and sun are around seven to nine light minutes away depending on the solar cycle.
The planet is roughly 6.9 times the size of Earth–somewhere Neptune and Saturn in size.
TOI 1338 b is the first planet ever discovered by the TESS system that is considered a circumbinary planet, meaning that it orbits two stars. The two stars orbit each other every 15 days, meaning this planet gets a lot of solar energy and daylight.
During an interview with News 12, Cukier compares the discovery to Star Wars:
NASA states that circumbinary planets like TOI 1338 b are difficult to detect because typical software can confuse them for eclipses, which is why the help from interns like Cukier is valuable.
“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.”
After making history, the high school senior is now deciding where he’ll attend college, telling News 12 “my top three choices are Princeton, MIT and Stanford.”