July 10 - Anniversary of a High Schooler's Discovery

Posted on July 10, 2020

On this date in 2019, the summer before his senior year in high school, Wolf Cukier discovered a planet!

Just 17 years old, Cukier was able to get an internship with NASA last summer. He was analyzing data sent back from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. The thing that is interesting about TESS data is that average people - citizen scientists, as it were - are invited to watch the online transmission, looking for patterns in star brightness that might - just might - mean that the star has a non-shining companion crossing in front of it. In other words, a pattern of dimming and brightening might just mean that a star is being orbited by at least one planet!

The citizen scientists are invited to flag anything they think is a pattern, anything they deem worth looking at by professional scientists. And it was that flagged data that Cukier was studying. 

Cukier looked at a binary star system - in other words, a system in which two stars are orbiting around one another. He identified a body circling both stars - a body that eventually was verified by multiple scientists to be a planet about seven times larger than Earth. 

Planets that circle a binary system are called circumbinary planets. And Cukier's discovery is the first circumbinary planet ever discovered using TESS data. (A dozen such planets were discovered with the Kepler space telescope.)

What would a world with two suns look like?
Star Wars fans of course think of Tatooine!
We would have double shadows - different angled shadows,
two shadows with perhaps different darknesses and colors.
Almost all pictures of circumbinary planets show a sky with the two
suns in close to the same place. It is, however, possible for a planet
to circle only one of the stars in a binary system, and then you might
have a sky with two suns in very different places.

Rarely, ice crystals in the atmosphere reflect the sun and
make our own familiar Earth look other-worldly...for just a
few minutes!

Wolf Cukier, asked about what it was like to discover a planet at such a young age, reported that it was awesome! 

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