A 17-year-old student, Wolf Cukier from Scarsdale High School in New York, was just three days into a summer internship at NASA’s Goddard’s Space Flight Center in Goddard, Md., when he made a remarkable discovery that should make us lift our heads from our human disposition of navel-gazing, look up in wonderment, and realize how puny we and Earth are in the unimaginably vast Universe.
According to NASA, Cukier’s “job was to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and uploaded to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project.”
TESS monitors millions of stars with four cameras, which each take a full-frame image of a patch of the sky every 30 minutes for 27 days. Scientists use the observations to generate graphs of how the brightness of stars change over time. When a planet crosses in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit, its passage causes a distinct dip in the star’s brightness.
As recounted by Cukier:
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.
TOI 1338 b, as it is now called, is TESS’s first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars. NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions previously discovered 12 circumbinary planets in 10 solar systems, all similar to TOI 1338 b.
Circumbinary planets orbiting two stars are more difficult to detect than those orbiting one star. In the case of TOI 1338 b, it is even more difficult to detect because the planet’s transits are irregular, between every 93 and 95 days, and vary in depth and duration because of the orbital motion of the two stars it orbits. TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star; the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect. This explains why Cukier had to visually examine each potential transit.
The planet, TOI 1338 b, is the first circumbinary planet that has been spotted using TESS data. After eagle-eye Cukier notified NASA of what he saw, scientists 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.
Around 6.9 times larger than Earth, or between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn, TOI 1338 b is the only known planet in its system, which lies 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor.
A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles, which means TOI 1338 b is 7,800 trillion miles from our Earth.
The planet TOI 1338 b orbits in almost exactly the same plane as the stars, so it experiences regular stellar eclipses. 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.
Cukier’s discovery was featured in a panel discussion on Monday, Jan. 6, at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu. A paper Cukier co-authored with scientists from Goddard, San Diego State University, the University of Chicago and other institutions, has been submitted to a scientific journal.
However, Cukier will not get the opportunity to name his discovery. As he explains to the New York Post: “New planets discovered by TESS get a TOI number if they don’t have another significant name already.”
H/t Fox News