Discoveries are an exciting feat for just about anybody. When it’s a planetary body in the depths of outer space it’s safe to say high schooler, Wolf Cukier is up for a bright future. Just three days into his internship he discovered an alien planet that orbits two stars. The data came from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
“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 in a NASA statement. “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 is a circumbinary exoplanet with a gaseous structure similar to the size of Saturn. Circumbinary planet discoveries aren’t new, but they are incredibly rare. NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered 2,682 exoplanets during its run. While there are more exoplanets, there are only about 12 that are circumbinary.
Although tools like telescopic cameras are useful in these kinds of discoveries. There are certain discrepancies that prevent the lens to capture celestial bodies to their fullest potential.
This is where Cukier’s role steps in. TESS, like Kepler, are tools to find changes in the brightness of the star. This could indicate a planet obstructing its view and lead to a discovery. In this case, the two stars TOI 1338 orbits aren’t the same size. According to NASA, the larger one is 10% more massive than our sun while the other is a dimmer red dwarf. The dip in brightness caused by the red dwarf was too subtle for TESS to detect.
Cukier’s job was to study data collected by TESS. He noticed the timing did not match up for a change in star brightness to be caused by a smaller star. Instead, these changes were caused by a bigger body, TOI 1338.
“I’ve had more congratulations over the past four days, than I’ve had over the past couple of years combined. Everybody is incredibly excited. It’s a surreal experience,” he tells the BBC.
Event though TESS has four cameras, taking full-frame images the sky every 30 minutes for 27 days, technology doesn’t always trump human precision.
“The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems,” said lead author Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard in the statement.
TESS has a limited amount of time to watch this circumbinary planet. In 2023 a tilt in its orbit will cause it to no longer be visible until 2031.
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