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Teenager Discovers Planet During First Week of His NASA Internship

If you want to feel insignificant, stare up at the vastness of space and contemplate the fact that you've never discovered a planet.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

In the final summer of his high school career, Wolf Cukier did what a lot of teenagers do: snag a summer job. Then he proceeded to do what pretty much no teenager has ever done: help discover a planet.

That’s because Cukier’s summer gig wasn’t a poorly paid job in retail or food service. The soon-to-be Scarsdale High School grad had a summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. In his first week on the job, Cukier identified a body in a system that was later verified as a planet nearly seven times as large as the Earth.

“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,” Cukier said. “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 the planet is now called, is so named because it’s a TESS Object of Interest. TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a unique project in which citizens flag patterns in star brightness that could suggest the existence of new planets. In nearly two years in orbit, 37 exoplanets have been identified by the project, which has 15,465 volunteers.

“It was awesome,” Cukier told the New York Times. “I never expected to find anything. The fact that I found something is cool, and seeing the scientific process and how many people have to work to verify the planet, and techniques for things like that, it is awesome.”

Cukier’s discovery is also notable because it’s the first circumbinary planet captured by the project, meaning that it orbits two stars instead of one. Those stars are part of the constellation Pictor, and they’re located about 1,300 lightyears away from Earth.

Cukier is now a senior in high school, and instead of pondering the complexities of the universe he’s spending his brainpower on an even more complicated question: where to attend college in the fall.