High School Student Discovers New Planet Just 3 Days Into His NASA Internship

Gabrielle Chung

A New York high school student can put “planet discovery” on his resume after finding a new world during his NASA internship.

Wolf Cukier was working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland last summer when he uncovered TOI 1338 b — a planet orbiting two stars instead of one — while examining information captured by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), according to a release from the space agency.

“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, 17, said in a statement. “About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338.”

He continued, “At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”

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TOI 1338 b is the first circumbinary planet discovered by TESS, according to NASA. The planet is around 6.9 times larger than Earth — nearly the size of Saturn — and lies in a system 1,300 light-years away in the constellation of Pictor.

The world orbits the two stars every 95 days, the agency said. One star is about 10 percent bigger than our sun, while the other is a cooler and dimmer M dwarf that is only a third of our sun’s mass.

Cukier’s planetary finding was featured in a panel discussion on Monday at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu, the agency said, and a paper co-authored by the high school student has been submitted to a scientific journal.

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The teen, who had just finished his junior year at Scarsdale High School when he made the discovery, likened TOI 1338 b to fictional planet Tatooine in an interview with News 12 published Wednesday.

“I discovered a planet, which has two stars that orbit around. So, if you think to Luke’s homeworld, Tatooine, from Star Wars, it’s like that. Every sunset, there’s going to be two stars setting,” he said.

While the teen has been credited with the finding, Cukier told the New York Post that he didn’t get to name the planet because “[n]ew planets discovered by TESS get a TOI number if they don’t have another significant name already.”

He added, “Funny thing is, I didn’t find anything else for the rest of the internship, even though I found one on like day three.”