Making the next great discovery for humankind sometimes requires a fresh set of eyes.
In the summer of 2019, high school junior Wolf Cukier was selected for a two-month internship at NASA. Wolf, who lives in Scarsdale, New York, was a typical 17-year-old at the time and loves “Star Wars” and all things space-related.
Over the summer, he headed to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The first several hours of his internship were all about learning the ropes, but on the third day, Wolf shattered expectations for interns forever!
His very first assignment was to analyze variations in star brightness from images captured by TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
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“About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338,” Wolf explained. “At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”
The planet Wolf discovered using TESS is now called TOI 1338 b. It’s about 6.9 times larger than Earth and is located about 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor.
Wolf’s discovery is significant. It’s the first planet captured by TESS that’s circumbinary, which means it orbits two stars, one of which is 10 percent larger than our sun. Every 15 days, those two stars orbit each other, so if we could stand on the surface, we’d be treated to an incredible eclipse about every two weeks.
Using “Star Wars” as a reference, Wolf explained the eclipsing binary to a local news station.
“I discovered a planet,” he said. “It has two stars which it orbits around. So, if you think to Luke’s home world, Tatooine, from ‘Star Wars,’ it’s like that. Every sunset, there’s gonna be two stars setting.”
NASA confirmed Wolf’s finding and submitted a paper for scientific review, which Wolf even got to cowrite! The report was presented at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in 2020. Not bad for a high school student!
Now that he’s a famous scientist, Wolf is turning his attention to college. His top three choices are Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Wherever he goes, they’ll be lucky to have him. We can’t wait to hear what he accomplishes next!
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