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NASA credits 17-year-old for discovering planet with two suns

13 January 2020

Wolf Cukier, 17, from Scarsdale, New York, made the discovery while peering through the agency's orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess) previous year.

But perhaps even more remarkable than the discovery was the scientist behind it - a 17-year-old high school intern from NY.

He continued, "At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet", he recalled.

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During the first week of the internship in the summer of 2019, Cukier was tasked with examining the TESS data flagged by citizen-scientists for variations in star brightness when he came across a system that included two orbiting stars. The goal is to find new planets, and sure enough, on his third day, Cukier spotted a tiny darkness on a distant sun. This irregular transit period is due to the fact that the planet is orbiting two stars that are orbiting each other. As per the space agency, one of the stars in the TOI 1338 system is about 10 per cent more massive than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun's mass.

His bosses spent several weeks verifying his observation, and ultimately concluded that Cukier had discovered a planet 6.9 times larger than Earth and only the 13th planet of its kind ever discovered. NASA officials said the planet is unlikely to be liveable. Cukier was studying a dual-star system known as TOI 1338 when he noticed something odd.

The discovery even featured at a panel discussion during the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu.

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Elisa Quintana is an astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Since its inception, it has discovered multiple planets. TESS could only spot the transit of the planet passing in front of the larger star. Scientists then attempt to confirm the presence of worlds and try to estimate the size and orbit of the planets.

"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.

TESS discovered three planets in orbit, named TOI 700 b, c and d.

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But a planet with two stars makes the transit method a little more hard to spot. Only "d" is in the so-called "Goldilocks zone", not too far from and not too close to the star, where the temperature could allow the presence of liquid water.

NASA credits 17-year-old for discovering planet with two suns