'There's something here': teen discovers new planet while interning at Nasa

Wolf Cukier, 17, discovered a planet 6.9 times larger than Earth and only the 13th of its kind

A teenage intern on his third day helping out at a Nasa program to find worlds beyond our solar system has discovered a previously unknown planet with two stars 1,300 light years from Earth away in the constellation Pictor, the agency has announced.

Wolf Cukier, 17, from Scarsdale, New York, made the discovery while peering through the agency’s orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess) last year.

Assigned to study how two stars would cross paths creating an eclipse, he focused on the solar system TOI 1338, where he noticed something in the orbit of two stars that was blocking the light.

His bosses spent several weeks verifying his observation, and ultimately concluded that Cukier had discovered a planet 6.9 times larger than Earth and only the 13th planet of its kind ever discovered.

“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, according to a Nasa press release.

“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.”

Cukier told CBS: “The planet blocked the light from those two stars, leading to a small dip in the amount of light that reached the telescope. That’s what I noticed at first.”

“It was like, oh … there’s something here that was cool. But it’s also not like there’s a single moment of discovery,” Cukier said.

Research on the newly discovered planet, known to astrophysicists as a circumbinary planet and now dubbed TOI 1338 b, was presented during the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu.

According to Nasa, the stars make an eclipsing binary, which occurs when the stellar companions circle each other in our plane of view. One is about 10% more massive than our sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the sun’s mass.

A paper co-authored by Cukier along with established scientists has been submitted to a scientific journal, Nasa said.

“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. Its orbit is stable for at least the next 10m years. The orbit’s angle to us, however, changes enough that the planet transit will cease after November 2023 and resume eight years later.”

Cukier, a Star Wars fan, has said he hoped this is the beginning of a career in the field.

“Our confidence went up and down a couple of times, but by the end of the internship, we were confident that what we found was a planet,” Cukier told ABC News about his and his team’s excited investigations.


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Spacewatch: Nasa planet hunter will target the rock zone
Using the TESS satellite, now at the Kennedy Space Centre, the agency is to study 200,000 stars in a quest for habitable planets

Stuart Clark

22, Feb, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
Nasa to launch Tess on hunt for 20,000 new worlds
Telescope hitching ride on a SpaceX rocket designed to spot alien worlds

Ian Sample Science editor

15, Apr, 2018 @10:17 PM

Article image
Spacewatch: Nasa retires planet hunter after it runs out of fuel
Mechanical failures ended the most precise phase of Kepler’s observations about five years ago but the craft continued its search

Stuart Clark

01, Nov, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
Webb telescope zooms in on planet beyond our solar system
The team observed carbon dioxide on a hot gas giant called Wasp-39b, about 700 light years away

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

25, Aug, 2022 @4:11 PM

Article image
Nasa to allow commercial access to the International Space Station
Move will allow private astronauts to spend up to 30 days in low-Earth orbit and businesses to shoot film and adverts in space

Jessica Glenza in New York

07, Jun, 2019 @4:53 PM

Article image
Earthrise at 50: the photo that changed how we see ourselves
Picture taken by the Apollo 8 mission at the height of the space race gave a new perspective on Earth’s place in the universe

Luke O'Neil

22, Dec, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Spacewatch: Nasa ends 16-year Spitzer infrared mission
Spitzer became first telescope to directly capture light from planets in orbit around other stars

Stuart Clark

06, Feb, 2020 @9:30 PM

Article image
Solar Orbiter spacecraft will capture the sun's north and south poles
Scientists hope the telescope will capture the imagination like ‘science fiction’

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

07, Feb, 2020 @11:10 AM

Article image
Earthrise: how the iconic image changed the world
Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders talks about Nasa’s orbit 50 years ago when he photographed Earth as it had never been seen before

Ian Sample Science editor

24, Dec, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Spacewatch: Firing up for a close encounter with the sun
After lift-off, set for Saturday, Nasa’s solar probe starts its six-year flight to within 3.8m miles of the sun – the nearest visit yet

Stuart Clark

09, Aug, 2018 @8:30 PM