School advisors always tell students to make the most of summer internships. New York teen Wolf Cukier sure proves that point.
The 17-year-old joined NASA's internship program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, after his junior year at Scarsdale High School.
Cukier received an assignment to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
On his third day of work, Cukier noticed a strange signal coming from a system called TOI 1338. As the intern kept digging deeper into the data, he had a hunch that what he'd found was actually a new planet.
"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 said in a NASA news release. "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."
NASA named the planet TOI 1338 b. It's the first circumbinary discovery by TESS, meaning it's a world orbiting two stars.
It's 6.9 times the size of Earth and orbits at almost the same plane as its stars. This means it regularly experiences stellar eclipses.
Cukier co-authored a paper with scientists from Goddard, San Diego State University, the University of Chicago and other institutions about the discovery. They recently submitted their work to a scientific journal for publishing.
"There are PhD candidates who would die to have the type of opportunities that Wolf has lucked into in this internship. It was an amazing, cool bit of serendipity," Wolf's mom, Beth Cukier, told CBS.
The TOI 1338 system is 1,300 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pictor. The two stars orbit each other every 15 days. TOI 1338 b is the only known planet in the system.
Planets orbiting two stars are hard for TESS to detect because of their irregular passes in front of their stars. Cukier had to visually examine each of these passes to reach his conclusion.
"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."
TESS is expected to observe hundreds of thousands of eclipsing binaries during its initial two-year mission, meaning many more of these circumbinary planets could be discovered in the near future.
As for Cukier, he plans to use this experience as a way to jumpstart his career. He plans to study physics or astrophysics at college — an education that could serve him well at a place like NASA.