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High schooler discovers new planet on 3rd day of NASA internship

A high schooler from New York had quite an internship at NASA over the summer.

17-year-old Wolf Cukier was finishing up his junior year of high school when he started an internship with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Three days after he started, he discovered a new planet that orbits two suns.

NASA internship leads to big discovery

Cukier says his job was to look through the data collected from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and by 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. “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.”

Right now the planet, named TOI 1338 b, is the only known planet to orbit the two suns, 1,300 light-years away from us here on Earth.

NASA and TESS showcased the “circumbinary planet” during a panel discussion earlier this week at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu.

What we know and why it matters

NASA says the two stars orbit each other every 15 days. One of the stars is about 10% more massive than our sun, and the other is about one third the mass of our sun. The smaller of the two stars is also cooler and dimmer than its companion.

Finding a planet that orbits two stars is more difficult than finding a planet that orbits one, NASA says, because of the way the two stars interact with the planet.

“TOI 1338 b’s transits are irregular, between every 93 and 95 days, and vary in depth and duration thanks to the orbital motion of its stars. TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star; the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect,” the agency said.

Additionally, the discovery may have been easier for a human than a machine to make.

“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.”

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