NASA Intern Discovers Planet Third Day on the Job

This story has been making the rounds the past few days, but it was so good that I had to share it anyway. Late last week, it was revealed that a 17-year old high school student by the name of Wolf Cukier made a major discovery while working as a summer intern for NASA last summer. The now-senior at Scarsdale High School in New York was working at the Goddard Space Flight Center when he was tasked with sifting through data collected as part of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) study. What he found was both remarkable and groundbreaking.

As a point of information, TESS is a project designed to search for exoplanets, which are planets that exist outside of our solar system. Over the years, the scientists working on TESS have located and identified dozens of planets orbing other starts throughout our galaxy, but it can sometimes take years to spot them. Not only did Cukier find one on his third day of the internship, that particular planet had a very unique feature—it orbits two stars at the same time.

NASA scientists have long believed that these so-called “circumbinary planets” have existed for years, but they’ve never been able to observe one before. Cukier’s discovery not only confirms that such planets exist, but that one is found relatively close to Earth, just 1300 light years away. The planet, which has been given the name TOI 1338 b, is almost seven times larger than our own and circles its stars on a close plane, which means that it experiences solar eclipses on a frequent basis.

Cukier says that he was examining the TESS data that had been flagged as potentially unusual by a group of volunteers that process the information. In that data was a note that one of the star systems was binary in nature, meaning that it had two stars. But as the teenager dug in a bit deeper and really began processing the information, he noticed an anomaly in the observations. He says, “At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”

While the discovery was made last summer, it has taken until now for it to actually be announced. NASA researchers had to examine the information closer and confirm that it was indeed a planet orbiting the binary system. Now that it has been confirmed, Cukier has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Hopefully they’ll eventually let him give the planet a proper name, although we may come to regret letting a teenager name anything.

Still, it’s a very cool story and congratulations to him on a great find.

Kraig Becker