NASA intern makes major discovery of a new planet in his first week

13 Jan 2020

TOI 1338 b is silhouetted by its host stars. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

One NASA intern has had a dream start to their career, with the discovery of a world orbiting two stars.

A school student interning at NASA helped to discover a planet with two stars, the agency announced. In 2019, Wolf Cukier joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as a summer intern, and helped to discover a planet, now named TOI 1338 b, on his third day at the agency.

He said: “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.

“About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338. At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”

Cukier’s job was to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and upload them to TESS’s citizen science project. The TESS mission began searching for planets in the summer of 2018, and has now discovered its first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars.

Massive planet

The newly discovered planet, TOI 1338 b, is around 6.9 times larger than Earth. One of its stars is about 10pc larger than our sun, while the other star is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the sun’s mass. The planet lies in a system 1,300 light years away from the Earth in the constellation Pictor.

TOI 1338 b’s discovery was featured in a NASA panel discussion last Monday (6 January) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“TOI 1338 b’s transits are irregular, between every 93 and 95 days, and vary in depth and duration thanks to the orbital motion of its stars,” NASA said.

“TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star – the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect. Its orbit is stable for at least the next 10m. The orbit’s angle to us, however, changes enough that the planet transit will cease after November 2023 and resume eight years later.”

A paper, co-authored by Cukier along with scientists from Goddard, San Diego State University, the University of Chicago and other institutions, has been submitted to a scientific journal.

– PA Media, with additional reporting by Colm Gorey