Internship opportunities are created by agencies to enable young enthusiasts to gain practical knowledge about their field of interest. Wolf Cukier was in his junior year at Scarsdale High School in New York when he landed a two-month internship with NASA in 2019.
During the summer of 2019, he moved down to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to commence his training. Just like every other intern accepted by NASA, Cukier was curious and ambitious to expand his knowledge about the cosmos during the internship program.
NASA officials handling the training assigned the first assignment to Cukier. This assignment involves examining variations in star brightness as photographed by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The assignment is categorized as part of the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project. The primary goal of the citizen science project is to allow enthusiasts who don’t work for NASA to assist in discovering new planets in the vast cosmos.
Cukier was fascinated with the new responsibility assigned to him by the American Space Agency and he decided to put in his best effort to actualize a great result from the hunt for planets. On the third day of his internship with NASA, Cukier found a new planet. Upon making this discovery, Cukier co-authored a paper detailing his findings for scientific review.
NASA officials were so amazed at his creativity and ability to discover a new planet within just three days. The American Space Agency officially announced the outcome of Cukier’s work on their website after verifying the accuracy of the discovery. During the American Astronomical Society meeting, Cukier’s planet was named TOI 1338 b.
During an interview with NASA, Cukier shared the process he deployed in making his discovery.
“I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circles around each other, and from our view eclipse each other every orbit,” 17-year-old Cukier told NASA. “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.”
This fascinating discovery made Cukier popular and he was also invited for numerous press interviews. While addressing his discovery to NBC 4 New York, Cukier further explained his discovery.
“I noticed a dip, or a transit, from the TOI 1338 system, and that was the first signal of a planet,” Cukier explained to NBC 4 New York. “I first saw the initial dip and thought, ‘Oh that looked cool,’ but then when I looked at the full data from the telescope at that star, I and my mentor also noticed, three different dips in the system.”
What You Should Know about TOI 1338b
TOI 1338 b is a circumbinary planet orbiting around two stars. It is about the size of Saturn and completes an orbit around the star every 95 days. The two stars orbit around each other. One of the stars consists of a small cool M dwarf, while the other is like our sun. They both collaborated and formed an eclipsing binary.
This means that the stars regularly pass in front of each when viewed from earth. TESS was able to discover this planet by searching for tiny, regular dips in starlights known as transits. The satellite saw the transit of TOI 1338 b. However, detecting that the transit is a planet was quite challenging.
Wolf Cukier closely studied hundreds of eclipsing binaries in search of planetary transits. Through this approach, he discovered the transit caused by the planet. Scientists around the world were amazed by his discovery, as it remains one of the most unique findings by a teenager in recent times.
Why Cukier Finding remains a Unique Discovery
Before Cukier became a NASA intern, other experts looked into the TOI 1338 system in search of potential planets. However, no one was able to discover TOI 1338 b because of some setbacks. NASA officially reveals that circumbinary planets such as the TOI 1338 b are quite difficult to discover because typical software commonly used for planetary discoveries can confuse them for eclipses. However, Cukier looked so close and made the discovery that amazes the world.
“These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,” Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at Goddard told NASA. “The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.”
If we must explore the stars and reach new planetary worlds, we need brilliant minds like Cukier to contribute immensely to finding planets with new potential. The young space enthusiast is hoping to further his education at either MIT, Princeton, or Stanford.
Let’s hope he reaches the peak of his career and make more discoveries for humanity in the future. What do you think about this discovery?