Highschooler Discovers New Planet After Three Days at NASA

Wolf Cukier, 17, a teenager from New York, has made it to the first page after it identified a new planet on the third day of its internship at NASA.

​The teenager interned at the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, this past summer and managed to make the finding during its first assignment. Cukier was utilizing NASA’s alien-hunting space telescope TESS when he observed the planet rotating around a pair of stars over 1,300 light-years from Earth.

The planet, which has been dubbed TOI 1338b, is about seven times more massive than Earth. It holds the Pictor constellation, and it orbits the pair of stars every 93 to 95 days, according to NASA.

“I discovered a planet [that] has two stars which it orbits around, 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,” Cukier said.

The original data was gathered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) program and was indicated as a possible planetary system by the public.

A Planet Encountering Eclipses

TESS takes a new picture of a single area of the sky every 30 minutes over a 27-day timeframe, collecting thousands of photographs. These are all uploaded to the official TESS citizen science website, where the broad public can spot possible planets.

Cukier had to manually analyze the pictures hoping he would identify any changes that could suggest a planet. This was the first assignment he was given as part of his internship.

“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,” he said.

“Three days into my internship, I saw a signal. At first, I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”

8In the meantime, more data about the planet was unveiled for the public this week. TOI 1338b rotates in the almost exact way as the stars; therefore, it encounters regular stellar eclipses, as per the research team.

Researchers use the observations from the telescope to create graphs of the way brightness of stars alter with time, and this can be used to spot a planet. When a planet passes in front of its star, its trajectory creates a specific dip in the star’s brightness.

Regular Trajectories

TOI 1338b’s transits are not regular and depend on in-depth as well as duration because of the orbital motion of its stars, the astronomers say. TESS only captures the transits passing the larger star as the trajectories of the smaller star are too dim to identify.

“These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,” said lead author Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard.

“The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.”

This is the reason behind the manual work handed over to Cukier. He initially believed that the transit was an outcome of the smaller star in the system passing before the larger ones because both generate similar dips in brightness when seen from Earth, but the timing was incorrect for it to be the stars alone.

TOI 1338 had already been observed from the ground by radial velocity surveys, which calculate action along our line of sight. Kostov’s team utilized this data to observe the system and confirm the planet. Its orbit is reliable for at least the next 10 million years.

TESS is expected to capture hundreds of thousands of binary star systems with a clear eclipse during its two-year mission, so many more of these planets will eventually be discovered, NASA researchers say.

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