Teenager discovers new planet on third day of Nasa internship

Distant body is nearly seven times larger than Earth and orbits two suns

Lateshia Beachum
Saturday 11 January 2020 11:33 GMT
Teen Wolf Cukier discovers planet on day three of Nasa internship

Most people sit through countless orientations on the first few days of their job, but one US teen discovered a planet – on his third day.

Wolf Cukier, 17, of Scarsdale, New York, had wrapped up his penultimate year of high school when he headed off to intern in the summer at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he discovered a planet orbiting two stars.

The planet, now known as TOI 1338b, is nearly seven times larger than Earth and has two stars – one that's about 10 per cent more massive than our sun, and another only a third of the sun's mass and less bright, according to Nasa.

It was the second time he had interned at the space research laboratory, having spent the summer of 2018 working on a Goldilocks Zone project under the mentorship of Nasa aerospace technology researcher Ravi Kopparapu.

Wolf was invited back to intern at the space flight complex, but Mr Kopparapu wasn't available to provide guidance. Wolf was placed under the tutelage of Nasa research scientist Veselin Kostov who never had a high school intern, Mr Kostov told The Washington Post.

“I gave him a brief outline of what we do, and he learned everything by himself,” Mr Kostov said. “He learned really quickly. He really developed a very good understanding of the field.”

The summer was the first time Wolf worked with Nasa's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), he said.

Tess monitors the brightness of stars for periodic drops caused by planetary transits, according to Nasa.

The teen had a framework of what to look for based on his exploring the Planet Hunters Tess citizen science project, which allows people to comb through Tess data and categorise different star systems, he said.

While looking at an image, Wolf thought something looked “suspicious,” he said, noting that the image had an additional feature that made him alert Mr Kostov.

“After we saw the original transit, we looked at the full light curve and saw three transits,” Wolf said.

Wolf and Mr Kostov spent hours verifying that the additional features they were seeing were real by looking through multiple data sets.

“It was just Wolf and me in the first couple of hours, and when we were 99 per cent certain the two traits we saw were real, we started reaching out to colleagues,” Mr Kostov said.

“It definitely coloured the rest of the internship,” Wolf said of his planet discovery. “Now, not only was I working on searching for additional planets, I was learning the full verification that goes into verifying a planet when we suspect it to be one.”

That process included using different data tools and involving researchers from the University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State.

The process was actually much faster than normal, taking about two to three months to confirm Wolf's discovery as a planet, Mr Kostov said.

The finding is a positive sign for the Tess' capabilities, Mr Kostov said, adding that he believes there will be more planets to be found.

“Tess is the only instrument that would allow us to discover this type of planet,” Mr Kostov said.

Wolf co-wrote a paper about his internship find with scientists from Goddard and other institutions that has been submitted for scientific review.

TOI 1338b was also featured in a panel discussion Monday at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu, according to Nasa.

Wolf couldn't name the planet, but his brother offered a better sobriquet: Wolftopia.

Now a high school senior, Wolf has his sights set on colleges such as Princeton University, Stanford University and MIT, where he can major in either astrophysics or physics.

He's still figuring out his summer plans, he said.

The Washington Post

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