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17-year-old NASA intern discovers new planet

We can thank Wolf Cukier, 17, of Scarsdale, N.Y., for Wolftopia.

Wolf Cukier, 17, of Scarsdale, N.Y.
Wolf Cukier, 17, of Scarsdale, N.Y.Read moreSam Friedman / Scarsdale Inquirer (custom credit)

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

Wolf Cukier, 17, of Scarsdale, N.Y., had wrapped up his junior year of high school when he headed off to intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where he discovered a planet orbiting two stars.

The planet, now known as TOI 1338 b, is nearly seven times as large as Earth and has two stars — one that’s about 10% 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 project related to the Goldilocks Zone (an atmospheric zone round a planet that may indicate the possibility of water on the planet), under the mentorship of NASA aerospace technology researcher Ravi Kopparapu.

Cukier was invited back to intern at the spaceflight complex, but Kopparapu was not available to provide guidance. Cukier was placed under the tutelage of NASA research scientist Veselin Kostov, who had never had a high school intern, Kostov told the Washington Post.

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

The summer was the first time Cukier had worked with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, known as TESS, the teen said. TESS monitors the brightness of stars for periodic drops caused by planetary transits, according to NASA.

Cukier had a framework of what to look for based on his exploration of the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project, which allows people to comb through TESS data and categorize star systems, he said.

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

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

Cukier and 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% certain the two traits we saw were real, we started reaching out to colleagues,” Kostov said.

“It definitely colored the rest of the internship,” Cukier 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, MIT, and San Diego State.

The process was much faster than normal, taking about two to three months to confirm Cukier’s discovery as a planet, Kostov said.

The finding is a positive sign for the TESS’s capabilities, 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,” Kostov said.

Cukier cowrote a paper about his internship find with scientists from Goddard and other institutions; it has been submitted for scientific review.

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

Cukier couldn’t give the planet a name, so his brother offered this sobriquet: Wolftopia.

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

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