17-year-old Nasa intern discovers a new planet on his third day
Jan. 10, 2020
This week, Nasa made a startling announcement: it had discovered a planet that was orbiting two suns.
This was the first such discovery made by the space agency’s new planet-hunting space satellite known as TESS .
But even more remarkable was that it was found by a high school student working as an intern. On his third day.
‘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,’ explained 17-year-old Wolf Cukier.
‘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.’
The new planet has been named ‘TOI 1338 b’ in relation to the system it inhabits – around 1,300 light years from Earth. The planet is 6.9 times the size of Earth – putting it somewhere between Neptune and Saturn. It’s also highly unlikely to sustain alien life.
The two stars orbit each other every 15 days. One is about 10% more massive than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun’s mass.
After identifying TOI 1338 b by the dimming it caused to its parent stars, the research team (involving Cukier) used a software package called eleanor, named after Eleanor Arroway, the central character in Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact,” to confirm the transits were real and not a result of instrumental artifacts.
‘Throughout all of its images, TESS is monitoring millions of stars,’ said study co-author Adina Feinstein, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
‘That’s why our team created eleanor. It’s an accessible way to download, analyze and visualize transit data. We designed it with planets in mind, but other members of the community use it to study stars, asteroids and even galaxies.’
Although the resulting study has been published now, the actual discovery took place last summer. We don’t know for sure, but we’d suspect Wolf would be welcomed back this year if he fancied another chance to go planet-hunting.