Teen Finds New Planet

January 24, 2020
DISTANT WORLD Wolf Cukier discovered TOI 1338 b (the black dot). In this illustration, the planet orbits its two stars.
FROM LEFT: COURTESY BEN CUKIER; CHRIS SMITH—NASA'S GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER

NASA recently announced a new planet. It was discovered by 17-year-old Wolf Cukier during his summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland. Wolf monitored data collected from TESS, a NASA satellite. TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Its mission is to find planets outside our solar system.

Wolf noticed a signal from planetary system TOI 1338. TOI stands for TESS Object of Interest. “I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong,” he said, according to NASA. “It turned out to be a planet.”

The planet is called TOI 1338 b. It’s nearly seven times the size of Earth. It’s “like Tatooine from Star Wars” because it orbits two stars, Wolf told TIME for Kids.

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Read an edited interview with Wolf below.

Tell us about your internship at NASA.

I got the NASA internship as part of the science-research program at my high school. My job was to look through previously collected data from the TESS.

What is TESS?

TESS is the telescope satellite that launched a couple of years ago to collect data. It was a joint collaboration between NASA and MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology].

How did you find the new planet?

It took some time. I was working with my mentor at NASA, Veselin Kostov. We were trying to find a circumbinary planet within the TESS data. A circumbinary planet is a planet that orbits two stars at the same time—so like Tatooine, from Star Wars.

I found about a hundred potentially interesting targets. I brought all of them to my mentor. But one was the most exciting of them all. I put about 10 asterisks next to it in my spreadsheet.

How do you feel about all of the attention your discovery is getting?

All the coverage is kind of overwhelming, because I thought it would make a small ripple in science news and that would be about it. But this is like the 17th or 18th interview I've given! It amazes me how much this has been covered.

What advice do you have for kids who aspire to make scientific discoveries?

I would tell them to just do stuff! I joined the science-olympiad team at my middle school, and that was a great experience. I'm still doing science olympiad now in high school. I would tell people that if they want to do science, just start doing science: tinker with stuff, or do a project.