Enrichment Education

Teen intern at NASA discovers new planet…in just three days

  • An intern discovered a planet 6.9 times larger than Earth that has two stars.
  • The teen made the discovery using a new satellite three days into his internship.
  • The findings are a positive sign for NASA’s latest mission.

Many astronomers and physicists spend their whole careers trying to discover new worlds in the universe. For a teen intern at NASA, it took him three days. 

Wolf Cukier, 17, of Scarsdale, N.Y., had just finished his junior year of high school last year when he headed off to his summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Just three days into the internship, Cukier discovered a planet that’s nearly seven times as large as Earth and has two stars. 

Cukier found the planet, now known as TIO 1338 b, while looking through NASA’s orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). It was the first discovery ever made through this program. 

“I noticed a dip, or a transit, from the TOI 1338 system, and that was the first signal of a planet,” Cukier said 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.”

TESS has four cameras, each capturing images of a patch of sky every 30 minutes for 27 days, according to NASA. When a planet crosses in front of its star from Earth’s perspective, an event called a transit, its passage causes a distinct dip in the star’s brightness.

In this case, those dips are made when the planet blocked the light from its two stars — one that’s about 10 percent more massive than our sun and another only one-third of the sun’s mass and less bright, according to NASA

But planets with two stars, like TOI 1338 b, are more difficult for the program’s algorithms to detect, NASA says. That’s where the human touch comes in. 

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

It may have taken the rest of Cukier’s summer internship for the team to confirm his discovery, but NASA says the planet isn’t going anywhere for quite some time. Its orbit is stable for at least the next 10 million years. 

“TESS is the only instrument that would allow us to discover this type of planet,” Kostov said to the Washington Post

Cukier says he hopes this is the beginning of a career in the field. But for now, the teen is happy to draw inspiration from a favorite movie: Star Wars.  

“I discovered a planet. It has two stars which it orbits around,” Cukier said to News12. “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.”