Planet TOI 1338 B discovered only three days into an internship by NY high school student

Dylan Stanford, Staff Writer

By Dylan Stanford

Scarsdale High school student Wolf Cukier concluded his junior year by spending his summer interning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where within the first three days he discovered a planet orbiting two stars.

The planet, TOI 1338 B, is over 1,300 light years away, making it impossible to visit; however, scientists were still able to discern that it was almost seven times larger than Earth. According to NASA, one of the stars that orbit TOI 1338B is “10 percent more massive than our sun” and the other is “only a third of the sun’s mass and less bright.” 

Cukier compares it to the planet Tatooine in Star Wars because if anyone were to live on it, they would see two suns rise and two suns set every day.

But this wasn’t Cukier’s first time interning for NASA; in the summer of 2018, Cukier spent time working on the Goldilocks Zone project, where he was mentored by NASA aerospace technology researcher Ravi Kopparapu.

Because of this, he was invited back in the summer of 2019. And while Kopparapu was no longer able to mentor, Cukier still was able to study under Vesilin Kostov. 

This is where he would discover TOI 1338 B.

Cukier was able to work with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a telescope that monitors the brightness of stars for periodic drops caused by planetary transits. 

Cukier compares the function of the telescope to the phenomenon of the moon eclipsing during the solar eclipse. So when a planet is orbiting stars, the plant will pass between the telescope and the stars while it is orbiting, causing a dimming in brightness.

And according to Cukier, the star system that TESS was observing just so happened to be the star system where TOI 1338 B was; therefore, when he noticed a strange dimming of light that wasn’t accounted for, he notified Kostov.

Kostov and Cukier spent the next few hours verifying and studying data, and then within two to three months Cukier’s discovery was confirmed to be a planet.

“The whole research process is far beyond what I would have imagined,” said Cukier in an interview with NPR’s host Scott Simon. “The amount of people that were involved in confirming the planet, making sure it’s real, characterizing the planet—so getting how long it orbits and whether or not it’ll still exist around the star in the next millions of years—all of these things I didn’t know before starting research.”

And now, as a high school senior, Cukier has his mind set on schools like Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, where he plans to major in physics or astrophysics.