NASA Intern Discovers New Planet
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A lot of us in high school might've learned how to write a better sentence, solve math problems with variables, read Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Lincoln's second inaugural address. NASA scientists announced this week that a high school senior from Scarsdale, N.Y., named Wolf Cukier has discovered a new planet. Does he get extra credit? Mr. Cukier made the discovery just three days into his internship with NASA's TESS - the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite - mission last summer. He joins us now from Scarsdale. Thanks very much for being with us.
WOLF CUKIER: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: I don't think I've begun an interview with anyone like this before. Please tell us about your planet.
CUKIER: So the cool thing about this planet is it's a circumbinary planet. So what that means is the planet orbits two stars at the same time. So if you think to Luke's home planet in "Star Wars," Tatooine, it's similar to that. Each day on this planet, you would see two suns rising and two suns setting.
SIMON: Does the planet have a name yet?
CUKIER: It has the boring name of TOI 1338 b.
SIMON: Someday, will they call it Wolf would be my question.
CUKIER: That's what my family wishes - Wolftopia.
SIMON: (Laughter) You - I mean, how far away? Is it possible to visit?
CUKIER: Very unlikely. It's 1,300 light-years away, so that means even if we were to have a spacecraft at the speed of light, it would take over a thousand years to get there.
SIMON: Are there people there, or any form of life?
CUKIER: Also incredibly unlikely. The brighter of the two stars that the planet orbits is brighter than the sun. And also, the planet orbits at an orbital period just longer than Mercury's.
SIMON: Were you just looking out the window? I mean, how did you discover a planet?
CUKIER: So the TESS telescope observes the sky, and the star system happened to be one of the stars that TESS was observing. So what happens is the planet, when it orbits those two stars, will pass between those stars in our telescope. When that happens, we notice a dimming in brightness from the telescope. If you imagine the moon eclipsing the sun during a solar eclipse, it's a similar phenomenon. So I noticed that dimming of light from the stars, and then that was evidence that something was there. And it turned out to be a planet.
SIMON: Did you go running to the older adults, the established scientists, and say, wait; I think I've discovered a planet?
CUKIER: Yeah. So this was one of about a hundred targets that I flagged on my initial looking, but this one was the best out of them. I probably put about 10 asterisks next to it in the spreadsheet that I went over with my mentor. But, like, the whole research process is far beyond what I would have imagined. The amount of people that were involved in confirming the planet, making sure it's real, characterizing the planet - so getting how long it orbits and whether or not it'll still exist around the star in the next millions of years - all of these things I didn't know before starting research.
SIMON: What fascinates you about the stars, the heavens?
CUKIER: They're unknown. There's so much there that we've yet to explore and catalogue.
SIMON: You're a senior. Do you know where you're going next year?
CUKIER: I'm still figuring that out, but my top three choices are Princeton, Stanford and MIT.
SIMON: I've heard of them. You put this on your student application, discovered a planet, under - what? - hobbies, internships.
CUKIER: Activities and extra information.
SIMON: Wolf Cukier is a senior - a senior - at Scarsdale High School. Thanks so much for being with us, and congratulations.
CUKIER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE SONG, "BETWEEN TWO LUNGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.