NASA Intern Discovers Rare New Planet

A high school student who had an internship with NASA has discovered a rare exoplanet orbiting two stars. Scarsdale High School student Wolf Cukier, 17, an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, made the discovery while going through data from the facility’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission (TESS). Cukier’s discovery marked the first time the TESS program discovered a planet in orbit of two stars.

Launched in the summer of 2018, NASA’s TESS mission was designed specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars. TESS uses four cameras to study the same patch of sky for 27 days at a time, taking photographs every 30 minutes. It tracks the changes in brightness of stars as planets pass in front of them, helping astronomers determine the location of planets.

The planet identified by Cukier was found in the TOI 1338 system in the constellation Pictor, a foreign system located 1,300 light-years from Earth. The system had been flagged as an eclipsing binary, where two stars circle around each other and eclipse each other from our point of view. These types of systems are difficult to detect and it is harder to distinguish the transit events from a planet in them, making the discovery extremely rare. The first circumbinary planet was discovered in 1993 and scientists have now confirmed about two dozen.

The newly found planet, named TOI 1338 b, is 6.9 times larger than Earth, between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn. It experiences regular eclipses from its stars, which it orbits every 93 to 95 days. The two suns in the solar system vary in size, with one being about 10 percent bigger than Earth’s sun and the other roughly 30 percent of the sun’s mass. The two suns orbit each other every 15 days.

Cukier and his mentors featured their work at a panel at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu. They are now looking for a science journal to publish the paper they wrote about the discovery. Cukier plans on continuing his research into astronomy and eclipsing binaries in the future and says he stays in touch with his mentors at NASA frequently.