A teenager from New York is making headlines after discovering a new planet on the third day of his internship at NASA.
Wolf Cukier, 17, interned at the government agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland this past summer and he found the planet during his very first assignment.
Cukier was using NASA’s alien-hunting space telescope TESS when he noticed the planet orbiting a pair of stars more than 1,300 light years from Earth.
The planet, which had been named TOI 1338b, is almost seven times larger than the Earth – somewhere between the size of Saturn and Neptune.
It lies in the Pictor constellation and the lone planet orbits the pair of stars every 93 to 95 days, NASA scientists have now said.
Cukier – a high school senior – is a die-hard Star Wars fan and told CNBC that the planet is somewhat like one from the fictional sci-fi series.
‘I discovered a planet [that] has two stars which it orbits around, so if you think to Luke’s homeworld, Tatooine, from ‘Star Wars,’ it’s like that. Every sunset, there’s gonna be two stars setting’.
Wolf Cukier, 17, is making headlines after discovering a new planet on the third day of his internship at NASA. He is pictured during an appearance on ABC’s Strahan, Sara and Keke this week
Cukier spotted the planet orbiting two stars for the first time, one a red dwarf and the other just 10 per cent larger than the Sun
The original data came from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, and was flagged as a possible planetary system by members of the public.
TESS captures a new image of a single patch of sky every 30 minutes over a 27-day period – generating thousands of photographs. These are all uploaded to the TESS citizen science website where people can flag possible planet candidates.
Cukier had to manually go through pictures flagged by the public in the hope of spotting any fluctuations that could point to a planet.
It was the first task he was assigned as part of his internship with 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,’ he said.
Cukier was using NASA’s alien-hunting space telescope TESS when he noticed the planet orbiting a pair of stars more than 1,300 light years from Earth. He is pictured using a separate telescope at home
In the Star Wars universe Tatooine orbits twin stars similar to the Sun. The planet is inhospitable and desert like and was home to Anakin and Luke Skywalker
‘Three days into my internship, I saw a signal. At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet,’ he told CNBC.
Cukier is enjoying a taste of fame following his groundbreaking discovery, also appearing live on ABC’s daytime chat show Strahan, Sara and Keke this week.
He was additionally profiled in The New York Times.
Cukier is in his senior year of high school, and is currently applying for college.
He says Princeton, Stanford and MIT are his top three picks.
The original data came from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission and were flagged as a possible planetary system by members of the public
Meanwhile, more information about the planet was released this week.
TOI 1338b orbits in almost exactly the same plane as the stars, so it experiences regular stellar eclipses, according to the research team.
Scientists use the observations from TESS to generate graphs of how the brightness of stars change over time, this can be used to detect a planet.
When a planet crosses in front of its star from our perspective – a transit – its passage causes a distinct dip in the star’s brightness, say NASA researchers.
‘Planets orbiting two stars are more difficult to detect than those orbiting one.’
TOI 1338b’s transits are irregular and vary in depth and duration thanks to the orbital motion of its stars, the team confirmed.
TESS is expected to observe hundreds of thousands of binary star systems with an obvious eclipse during its initial two-year mission, so many more of these planets should be waiting for discovery, say NASA researchers
TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star as the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect.
‘These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,’ said lead author Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard.
‘The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.’
This is why Cukier was tasked with manually searching through the images to try to identify any patterns in the light dips.
He initially assumed the transit was a result of the smaller star in the system passing in front of the larger ones as both cause similar dips in brightness when viewed from Earth, but the timing was wrong for it to be the stars alone.
The team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre used software called eleanor to verify the information in the images.
The software package is is named after Eleanor Arroway, the central character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact.
TOI 1338b orbits in almost exactly the same plane as the stars, so it experiences regular stellar eclipses, according to the research team
This allowed them to confirm the transits were real and not a result of issues with the pictures or instruments used to capture the pictures.
‘Throughout all of its images, TESS is monitoring millions of stars,’ said co-author Adina Feinstein, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
‘That’s why our team created eleanor. It’s an accessible way to download, analyze and visualize transit data.
‘We designed it with planets in mind, but other members of the community use it to study stars, asteroids and even galaxies.’
TOI 1338 had already been studied from the ground by radial velocity surveys, which measure motion along our line of sight.
Kostov’s team used this archival data to analyze the system and confirm the planet. Its orbit is stable for at least the next 10 million years.
The orbit’s angle to us, however, changes enough that the planet transit will cease after November 2023 and resume eight years later.
TESS is expected to observe hundreds of thousands of binary star systems with an obvious eclipse during its initial two-year mission, so many more of these planets should be waiting for discovery, say NASA researchers.
HOW DO SCIENTISTS STUDY THE ATMOSPHERE OF EXOPLANETS?
Distant stars and their orbiting planets often have conditions unlike anything we see in our atmosphere.
To understand these new world’s, and what they are made of, scientists need to be able to detect what their atmospheres consist of.
They often do this by using a telescope similar to Nasa’s Hubble Telescope.
These enormous satellites scan the sky and lock on to exoplanets that Nasa think may be of interest.
Here, the sensors on board perform different forms of analysis.
One of the most important and useful is called absorption spectroscopy.
This form of analysis measures the light that is coming out of a planet’s atmosphere.
Every gas absorbs a slightly different wavelength of light, and when this happens a black line appears on a complete spectrum.
These lines correspond to a very specific molecule, which indicates it’s presence on the planet.
They are often called Fraunhofer lines after the German astronomer and physicist that first discovered them in 1814.
By combining all the different wavelengths of lights, scientists can determine all the chemicals that make up the atmosphere of a planet.
The key is that what is missing, provides the clues to find out what is present.
It is vitally important that this is done by space telescopes, as the atmosphere of Earth would then interfere.
Absorption from chemicals in our atmosphere would skew the sample, which is why it is important to study the light before it has had chance to reach Earth.
This is often used to look for helium, sodium and even oxygen in alien atmospheres.
This diagram shows how light passing from a star and through the atmosphere of an exoplanet produces Fraunhofer lines indicating the presence of key compounds such as sodium or helium