17-Year-Old Discovers Rare New Planet 3 Days Into NASA Internship

A 17-year-old intern discovered a new planet three days into working with NASA, finding the exoplanet when going through data from NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Named TOI 1338 b, the new discovery is 6.9 times larger than Earth, nearly the size of Saturn, resides in the TOI 1338 system, and is 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor.

TOI 1338 b orbits two stars instead of one and is the only planet in its system. One of the stars is around 10 percent larger than our Sun, while the other is around one third of our Sun's size, and the two stars orbit each other every 15 days.

Wolf Cukier joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a summer intern after his junior year of high school at Scarsdale High School in New York. He was assigned to study variations in star brightness captured by TESS and uploaded 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 from 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."

After the finding, Cukier co-authored a paper with scientists from Goddard, San Diego State University, the University of Chicago and other institutions that has been submitted to a scientific journal.

TESS operates with four cameras that take photos of the same patch of sky every 30 minutes for 27 days. The number of photos allow scientists to study the change in brightness in the stars, and when planets pass in front of stars, called a transit, the brightness dims which can allow for scientists to find the location of the planet. In the cast of TOI 1338 b, it was more difficult to detect due to its two stars, making Cukier's visual examination of the transits key to identifying the planet.


"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."

Photo Credit: YouTube / NASA Goddard