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NASA intern's stellar discovery

SCIENCE

All interns are keen to make a good impression at work and score brownie points for their CVs. Wolf Cukier’s summer internship at NASA couldn’t have gone any better — in fact, the 17-year-old’s time at the space agency last year was so successful you could describe it as stratospheric.


Cukier made global headlines after discovering a new planet three days into his secondment from Scarsdale High School in New York. “I was looking through the data for everything flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circle around each other and from our view, eclipse each other every orbit,” Cukier said in a NASA media release. “At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”


Dubbed “TOI 1338 b”, NASA scientists determined Cukier’s discovery was a “circumbinary planet” — that is, a world that orbits two stars. Speaking to NPR, Cukier compared TOI 1338 b to Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars: “It’s similar to that,” he said. “Each day on this planet, you would see two suns rising and two suns setting.”


Located 1,300 light years away from Earth — and about 6.9 times bigger — TOI 1338 b is a rare find, says NASA, because circumbinary planets are difficult to spot and can only be detected when a star’s light dims. Substantiating its existence, said Cukier, proved challenging. "Our confidence went up and down a couple of times, but by the end of the internship, we were confident that what we found was a planet," he said. Cukier is currently working toward a physics or astrophysics major with an intention to embark on a stargazing career in the future. No doubt NASA will be keen to hear from him.


ABOVE Wolf Cukier


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