When most teenagers get their first internship, their expectations aren’t usually too high – most interns hope to gain some important job skills and references, do some networking, fulfill academic requirements and hopefully earn a bit of extra money. However, one lucky high school student interning at NASA took things a little bit further and discovered a whole new planet.
In 2019, 17-year-old Wolf Cukier arrived at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with high hopes to gain the most out of his highly valued internship. He was immediately given the task of examining data collected by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a state-of-the-art planet-hunting satellite which has been scouring outer space for systems with two stars since 2018.
The high school intern was only on his third day in the position when he noticed a ping emanating from the data he was poring over. While at first he suspected that this was merely an eclipse, he soon realized that he had just discovered a previously unknown planet – since named TOI-1338 b — which has now been compared to Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine from the Star Wars saga, complete with its dual sunsets.
“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 told NBC News.
“About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338,” Cukier continued. “At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”
A year and a half since the intern made the startling discovery, NASA has now published a comprehensive report detailing all that they know about TOI-1338 b.
The planet, which is about 6.9 times larger than Earth – roughly the size of Saturn – is a gas exoplanet similar to Neptune, and very unlikely to be livable. The massive planet is the only planet in the TOI 1338 system, which is a distant 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. The circumbinary planet orbits its two sun-like stars every 95 days.
The dual-star system consists of two stars that orbit one another once every 15 days. While one of the stars is about 10 percent larger than our own Sun, the other is cooler, dimmer, and roughly a third of the Sun’s mass. In this system, one star occasionally blocks or eclipses the other star from our vantage point here on Earth – hence Cukier’s initial belief that he had simply found a stellar eclipse. However, this blip turned out to be caused by the path of TOI-1338 b, which appears irregular due to the two stars dancing around one another.
TOI-1338 b has now become simply the latest among a growing list of planets NASA is aware of that orbit two stars – a result, specifically, of the TESS satellite’s purpose of locating Earth-sized planets existing in dual-star systems.
And while Cukier now has a dazzling career-level achievement to add to his résumé, the new planet is also enrapturing people across the internet. In one image of the gas planet rendered by NASA, TOI-1338 has a rosy, pinkish hue. Another lush, pastel-colored rendition of the planet created by a bot has also captured the imagination of internet users. And while our space observation technology is still unable to capture actual photographs of this gassy beaut, we can still thank Cukier for lifting the curtain on a brand new world for us to imagine.
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