NASA intern helps to discover new world in habitable zone

A teenage intern had one of the more memorable work placements that one can imagine when he helped NASA to discover an entirely new planet! Wolf Cukier, 17, achieved this notable feat in just his third day of working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
NASA new planet
A NASA intern identified a new planet, named TOI 1338b, during a work placement. Photo: NASA.

New planet

Cukier discovered a planet that is orbiting two stars, which has since been named as TOI 1338b. Not perhaps the catchiest name ever, but still an extraordinary achievement for a young man just making his way in the world.

TOI 1338b is known to be seven times larger than the earth, and features two stars, one of which is approximately 10% larger than the sun of our solar system. NASA also notes that the other star is approximately one-third of the sun’s mass.

Cukier was interning at the space research laboratory for the second time, having worked there previously in 2018 on a Goldilocks Zone project. At that time, Cukier had come under the tutelage of NASA aerospace technology researcher Ravi Kopparapu.

The high school student was intended to work with Kopparapu again, but the technology expert was unavailable. Cukier was instead replaced with NASA research scientist Veselin Kostov, who told The Washington Post that he had never previously supervised a high school in turn.

“I gave him a brief outline of what we do, and he learned everything by himself. He learned really quickly. He really developed a very good understanding of the field,” Kostov commented.

NASA new planet
TOI 1338b is located within a significant habitable zone, as this diagram shows. Photo: NASA.

Science project

Cukier had been provided with a framework and what to look for based on his exploring the Planet Hunters Tess citizen science project. This initiative continues to enable young people to assess data and categorize a variety of star systems.

During the assessment of a particular image, Cukier spied something that he considered to be suspicious, in particularly noticing an additional feature that prompted him to contact Kostov. “After we saw the original transit, we looked at the full light curve and saw three transits,” Cukier told The Washington Post.

Kotov and Cukier pored over a variety of datasets in order to verify that the additional features that they had observed where real, and the discovery was then corroborated by a variety of NASA experts.

This significant breakthrough then had a massive influence on the remainder of Cukier’s internship, as the teenager went on to learn the full verification process associated with establishing the existence of a planet.

NASA new planet
TOI 1338b has two stars, one of which is significantly larger than the sun from our solar system. Photo: NASA.

Experts called in

Data, tools and expert opinion from researchers from the University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State were sought before TOI 1338b could be confirmed. Cukier then went on to co-author a paper on the find, which has since been submitted for peer review.

It is also notable that the planet is contained within a potentially habitable portion of the universe, meaning that it could theoretically support life.

Cukier now expects to major at college in either astrophysics or physics, with Princeton University, Stanford University, and MIT being possible destinations.

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