In the summer of 2019, 17-year-old Wolf Cukier began his prestigious internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He would start his senior year of high school that fall, so the pressure of college applications loomed ahead. Being an intern at NASA sounds impressive already, but by his third day at the job this teenager added something jaw-dropping to his future CV. He discovered a planet.
Teenage Intern at NASA Discovers a New Planet
As an intern, Cukier analyzed data collected by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS’s project is unique since researchers invite volunteers to watch the transmissions for patterns that could indicate the existence of a new planet. Cukier was told to search for a planet with two stars orbiting it by looking for changes in the stars’ brightness, which would shift if a potential planet moves in front of them. On his third day as an intern at NASA, Cukier saw a blip on the data for one system and flagged it.
“I took it to my mentor,” Cukier said. “We looked at the data from the stars and noticed two additional dips in light, so we started doing analysis to see if it actually could be a planet.”
That system in particular had two orbiting stars and later noted was about 6.9 times the size of Earth. It was a planet never seen before.
“It was awesome,” Wolf said. “I never expected to find anything. The fact that I found something is cool, and seeing the scientific process and how many people have to work to verify the planet, and techniques for things like that, it is awesome.”
The newfound planet was named TOI 1338 b. “I don’t get to name the planet,” he explained. “My brother had the idea of calling it Wolftopia but I think TOI 1338 b is sufficient.” 
The NASA intern is also a Star Wars fan. He makes a comparison to TOI 1338 b and Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tattoine, which also has two orbiting suns in the film. However, this planet is inhabitable. “It’s very much like Tatooine, at least how the stars would appear in the sky. So, it would also have a double sunset.”
Finding a New Planet
This is the first instance where TESS discovered a planet with two orbiting stars since the project opened in April 2018. NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions found 12 similar planets, but many more are expected to be found by TESS. For now, TOI 1338 b remains the only known one in the system.
TESS has four cameras that photograph a piece of the sky every half an hour to document the varying brightness of the stars. In the case of TOI 1338 b, one of its orbiting stars was easy to detect, but its smaller one almost went unnoticed. Until Cukier, who first thought that the smaller star passed in front of the larger one, but the timing seemed off for an eclipse, so he began to think the shift in brightness was from a planet.
According to Cukier’s mentor and a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard, Veselin Kostov, “These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with. The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.” 
Kostov helped the NASA intern verify his discovery using earlier data entries of this system. Soon after, TOI 1338 b was officially discovered.
A Future at NASA?
This discovery may not guarantee the intern a job at NASA, but it could help. “I’ve no idea about NASA’s hiring practices but it can’t hurt! It’s a good thing to have on my CV,” he said.
The agency was impressed at what he had accomplished during his internship. “My mentor has been very supportive and excited. I think NASA is surprised with the amount of attention this has been getting.”
Regardless, Cukier looks forward to a future career involving space. He plans to go to university after high school. “When I’m there I’m planning to study physics and astrophysics. From there, a career in space research is appealing.”
The teen from Scarsdale, New York, has been long fascinated by space. He keeps a telescope in his room, where the bright lights of the city makes star-gazing difficult.
Although Cukier was praised and congratulated after the discovery, he doesn’t brag about his accomplishment, since it “just doesn’t come up in small talk.” He emphasized the teamwork needed to verify his suspicions of a new planet. “We identified a promising candidate,” he said. “You can’t be arrogant. It is a planet, insofar as we can claim any other exoplanet, pretty much.” 
Keep Reading: You Can Now Own NASA’s Voyager Golden Record On Vinyl
- “Meet the NASA intern who discovered a new planet on his third day.” BBC. Hannah Morrison. January 16, 2020
- “17-year-old discovers planet 6.9 times larger than Earth on third day of internship with NASA.” CNBC. Abigail Johnson Hess. January 10, 2020
- “How’s Your Internship Going? This Teen Found a Planet.” New York Times. Christine Hauser. January 11, 2020