Wolf Cukier, up until recently, was just a normal a teenager from New York. Life for him was already getting more exciting, after landing an internship with NASA, but it's the discovery he made during this internship, which has made it so that he'll probably never be categorized as normal again.
During this internship, the 17-year old was assigned to work for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and his primary task was to look through data on the brightness of stars. He was simply doing his job and using the Space Flight Center's technology (TESS), when he discovered a slight darkness in one of the foreign systems' suns. The darkness which he saw, ended up being a planet, which is almost 7 times larger than Earth and orbits two suns. Scientists refer to these types of planets as circumbinary planets. The planet was named TOI 1338 b, and it's the first circumbinary planet detected by TESS. Because circumbinary planets orbit two suns instead of one, they can be harder for the technology to find.
Credit: ABC News
“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 described his discovery in a press release from NASA. “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.”
At first glance, Cukier assumed that the darkness he saw was just one star in the foreign system, passing in front of the other, but he quickly realized that the timing of it all didn't add up; that's when he came to believe that me might just be staring at a planet.
“These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,” Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard explained in an interview. “The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.”