Discovering a planet on day three of your NASA internship ranks high in terms of impressing your possible new boss.
When most teens obtain their first internship their expectations aren’t generally very high — most interns want to learn some key career skills and references, do some networking, satisfy academic requirements, and perhaps make a little additional money. However, one lucky high school student interning at NASA went a step farther and discovered a whole new planet.
Wolf Cukier, 17, arrived at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland in 2019 with great aspirations of making the most of his valuable internship. He was immediately assigned the duty of reviewing data collected by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a cutting-edge planet-hunting satellite.
look at this planet that nasa has found… she’s gorgeous! pic.twitter.com/tax0eWeoMD
— Neil Degrease Tyson (@DegreaseNeil) January 24, 2021
The high school internship was just on his third day at the job when he detected a ping coming from the data he was looking at. While he initially thought it was just an eclipse he quickly realized he had found a previously undiscovered planet – now called TOI-1338 b – which has since been compared to Luke Skywalker’s home world of Tatooine from the Star Wars trilogy complete with dual sunsets.
“I was going through the data for anything the volunteers had identified as an eclipsing binary which is a system in which two stars revolve around each other and from our perspective eclipse each other every orbit,” Cukier explained to NBC News.
“About three days into my internship I detected a signal from a system called TOI 1338.” Cukier added, “At first, I mistook it for a celestial eclipse but the timing was off. It was discovered to be a planet.”
NASA has now produced a full report documenting everything they know about TOI-1338 b, a year and a half after the intern made the astounding discovery.
The planet, which is approximately 6.9 times the size of Earth – nearly the size of Saturn – is a gas exoplanet akin to Neptune and is extremely unlikely to be habitable. The huge planet is the sole planet in the TOI 1338 system which is located in the constellation Pictor 1,300 light-years away. Every 95 days, the circumbinary planet circles its two sun-like stars.
The dual-star system is made up of two stars that circle each other every 15 days. While one of the stars is about 10% larger than our Sun, the other is colder, dimmer, and about one-third the mass of the Sun. In this system, one star occasionally blocks or eclipses the other star from our vantage point on Earth, leading Cukier to believe he had discovered a stellar eclipse. This blip, however, was generated by the course of TOI-1338 b, which seems erratic owing to the two stars dancing around each other.
TOI-1338 b is now just the most recent addition to a growing list of planets known to NASA that orbit two stars — a result, specifically, of the TESS satellite’s mission of locating Earth-sized planets in dual-star systems.
And, while Cukier now has a brilliant career-level achievement to add to his résumé, the new planet is also enthralling people all across the internet. TOI-1338 seems rosy, reddish in one NASA picture of the gas planet. Another beautiful, pastel-colored depiction of the planet generated by a bot has also grabbed the attention of internet users. While our space observation equipment is yet unable to catch genuine photos of this gassy beauty, we can thank Cukier for opening the door to a completely new universe for us to contemplate.