It was a summer internship to remember for one 17-year old from New York; one that landed Wolf Cukier firmly amongst the stars.
Finishing his junior year at Scarsdale High School in New York, Cukier joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a summer intern. His job was to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and uploaded to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project.
“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 press release from 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.”
To add to Cukier’s now stellar resume, the discovery was featured on Jan. 6 in a panel discussion at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu. A paper, which Cukier co-authored along with scientists from Goddard, San Diego State University, the University of Chicago and other institutions, has been submitted to a scientific journal.
In the official press release from NASA, they explained that the TOI 1338 system lies 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. The two stars orbit each other every 15 days with one measuring about 10% larger than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer, and only one-third the Sun’s mass.
TOI 1338 b is the only known planet in the system. It’s around 6.9 times larger than Earth, or between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn. The planet orbits in almost precisely the same plane as the stars, so it experiences regular stellar eclipses.
“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 explains why Cukier had to examine each potential transit visually. For example, he initially thought TOI 1338 b’s transit was a result of the smaller star in the system passing in front of the larger one — both cause similar dips in brightness. But the timing was wrong for an eclipse.
After identifying TOI 1338 b, the research team used a software package called Eleanor, named after Eleanor Arroway, the central character in Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact,” to confirm the transits were real and not a result of instrumental artifacts.
“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.”
For now, Cukier told ABC News he plans to continue his research and still keeps in touch with his NASA mentors.
PHOTO: This Nasa artist’s illustration shows what researchers working with data from Tess have discovered in the mission’s first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars. Photograph: Handout/Nasa/AFP via Getty Images