NASA Intern Discovered New Planet With Two Suns on Third Day of Placement

A 17-year-old from Scarsdale, New York discovered a new planet on his third day of a two-month internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

During the internship last year, Wolf Cukier was tasked with examining variations in the brightness of stars within data captured by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS for short.

"I worked with [NASA scientist] Veselin Kostov and with him I worked on finding a circumbinary planet in the TESS data," Cukier told Newsweek. "It was exciting because 1) I was actually able to do research that summer, which is cool, and 2) I was able to work in an area of science that I really enjoy. And 3) I was at NASA, which is just a cool place."

Circumbinary planets are worlds which orbit two stars—something which had never been discovered before in the TESS data. But just three days into the internship, Cukier was able to identify one of these worlds in a star system located around 1,300 light-years away.

"I was pretty excited. Coming into the internship, it would be hard to say that I expected to find a planet. 'Hope' is probably the best word to use there, because there are a total of 12 previously discovered transiting circumbinary planets that were known at the time," Cukier said. "That's 12 I think in 10 years. So they aren't impossible to find but they're not very common to find either. And also tests had yet to find any circumbinary planets. So finding this one was especially cool."

"The TESS data, at the time, was still under a year old," Cukier said. "So finding one just that early in general was fun. And also I don't think [my manager] expected me to find one so early either."

The planet—dubbed TOI 1338 b—is thought to be around seven times larger than the Earth and it orbits the two stars in almost exactly the same plane, meaning it experiences regular stellar eclipses. The two stars in the system orbit each other every 15 days, according to NASA.

A paper regarding the discovery—which is co-authored by Cukier, alongside scientists from Goddard and several other institutions—has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal.

TESS circumbinary planet
Researchers working with data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have discovered the mission’s first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

On the back of his successful internship at the space agency, Cukier said the next step for him is college.

"My top three choices are Princeton, Stanford and MIT. We shall see what happens in the application process. I intend to study physics or astrophysics—depends which college I end up going to because some only offer physics and some offer astrophysics in addition."

"Then I will see what happens from there," he said. "Being a research scientist or a professor are appealing options, however, that's a bit in the future for me to predict how my life will turn out."