Jan 22, 2021

17-Year-Old High School Student Discovers New Planet Just 3 Days Into His NASA Internship

At the age of 17, most of us were busy trying to graduate high school while juggling our social life and maybe a few extracurricular activities. Not many of us could add, "discovered new planet" in our resume but this teen from New York can. Wolf Cukier, a student of Scarsdale High School in New York, managed to make history after he found a planet before he was even able to vote. And he managed to do it three days into his internship at NASA. As far as leaving an impression at internships go, discovering a planet will probably do the trick. 

Cukier was always interested in science and signed up for the science research program from his school. He told Space.com that he was specifically interested in astrobiology and applied to work with mentors from this field. He was referred to Ravi Kopparapu, Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who was his mentor for the 2018 summer internship at NASA. The next year he was invited back but was reassigned to work with Veselin Kostov, Research Scientist at NASA GSFC, SETI Institute. During the 2019 internship, their goal was to find one of these planets. And much to their luck, they were able to find one pretty quickly. 

His internship was at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where Cukier had to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and upload it to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project.“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,” Cukier said in a statement released by NASA about the discovery of the planet. “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.”


The planet Cukier has discovered, TOI 1338 b, lies 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. This is the first circumbinary planet discovered on TESS. A circumbinary planet is one that orbits two stars. The planet discovered is currently the only known planet in the system and is as big as Saturn or 6.9 times larger than Earth. Cukier also co-authored a paper along with scientists from Goddard, San Diego State University, the University of Chicago, and other institutions, which has been submitted to a scientific journal. This is actually an incredible feat considering how it is more difficult to detect planets that orbit two stars than those that orbit only one.

“These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,” lead author Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard said. “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 why Cukier had to visually examine each potential transit and was able to tell that the timing was wrong for an eclipse. “Throughout all of its images, TESS is monitoring millions of stars,” co-author Adina Feinstein, a graduate student at the University of Chicago said. “That’s why our team created eleanor. It’s an accessible way to download, analyze and visualize transit data. We designed it with planets in mind, but other members of the community use it to study stars, asteroids, and even galaxies.”

Eleanor is an open-source python framework for downloading, analyzing, and visualizing data from the TESS Full Frame Images to confirm the transits were real and not a result of instrumental artifacts. It is named after Eleanor Arroway, the central character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. With this discovery, Cukier is an inspiration for all the youngsters who want to take up STEM and achieve big things even if it's not the third day of their job. 

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