17-Year-Old NASA Intern Discovers New Planet on His Third Day


Wolf Cukier, a 17-year-old NASA intern, distinguished himself when he discovered a planet just three days into an assignment. Originally, the teen was instructed to look into the brightness of certain stars captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS, but he ended up finding what is now being called TOI 1338 b, a planet that’s estimated to be almost seven times bigger than the size of Earth.

According to Cukier, he was searching in a database “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.” He adds, “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.” When Cukier examined the full set of data from TESS, his mentor saw that there were in fact “three different dips in the system,” which allowed them to estimate the size of the planet. TOI 1338 b is also the first planet found via TESS, and it lies roughly 13,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Pictor. It’s a circumbinary planet, which means it orbits around two stars: “If you think to Luke [Skywalker]’s homeworld, Tatooine, from Star Wars, it’s like that. Every sunset, there’s gonna be two stars setting,” said Cukier, comparing it to Star Wars.

Scroll above for a look at NASA’s video explaining how the planet was found.