Young Achievers

Young Achiever Wolf Cukier

Wolf Cukier is a 17-year-old who has become a teen prodigy in the world of space discovery. During an internship at NASA, he discovered an entire new planet hundreds of light years away. You heard me. Here’s his story.

Wolf Cukier was born in the year 2003. While going to Scarsdale High School in New York, Wolf got the opportunity for a two month internship at NASA in the summer of 2019. Excited, he traveled to the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

There, he was given his first task to examine light patterns of solar systems that have more than one star creating a binary or steller eclipse. This happens when the two stars overlap each other in orbit. All of this is captured using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

“When I went into the program I expected to do something, but I didn’t expect to actually find a planet.”

The internship was part of NASA’s citizens science project allowing people who don’t work for NASA to help find planets in the wide expanse of the universe.

In the hundreds of solar systems Wolf was examining, the TESS telescope captures dips in brightness as the stars eclipse each other over time. On the third day of his internship while studying the patterns from different binary systems Wolf noticed something out of the ordinary. There was a signal from a system named TOI 1338 (TOI means Target Of Interest).

TOI 1338’s has two stars which are named TOI 1338 A, and TOI 1338 B. One is a red dwarf while the other is just like our sun. The signal from TESS indicated another dimming of brightness in the ongoing pattern. At first Wolf thought it was another steller eclipse but the timing was wrong. Little did he know, it was actually a planet!

What happened was that extra dip or transit was caused by the planet orbiting over the satellite’s line of sight. But it’s tricky to spot since the time between the transit is only slightly less than the binary eclipse and the dip looks exactly like TOI 1338 B, the red dwarf.

He brought this up with his mentor, Dr Veselin Kostov and they noticed there were actually three dips of light which were not caused by the regular pattern of the two orbiting stars. This got everyone’s attention.

“It was like, oh … there’s something here, that was cool. But it’s also not like there’s a single moment of discovery.”

Wolf’s mentor and other scientists spent many weeks checking the data trying to verify if it was actually a planet. “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,”

The planet which is over 1,300 light years away was named TOI 1338 b. It isn’t very interesting is it? Even before that it was called TICK 260128333… I have no words. (By the way, don’t confuse TOI 1338 B, the red dwarf with TOI 1338 b with a lower case b. It’s not a typo, it’s actually the name).

Wolf’s parents and siblings had a different opinion suggesting the planet to be named Wolf – Topia. I would live there. But Wolf thinks TOI 1338 b, is sufficient. He’s also a true Star Wars fan with multiple movie posters in his room. He gives the analogy that the planet is like Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine with the double sunset.

Image by Gimena Terrari

Unlike Tatooine the planet is unlivable as it’s likely to be hot and without a solid surface. The planet itself is 6.9 times larger than planet Earth. It orbits the two stars around every 95 days but in November of 2023 it won’t be able to be seen for another 8 years.

“It feels both cool, and overwhelming.”

Wolf Cukier

Word began to spread of Wolf Cukier’s amazing discovery. He’s been interviewed with BBC, NBC, ABC and dozens of other programs sharing the incredible story of his discovery. He’s now back to his normal life at Scarsdale High School but his reputation has made him a sort of celebrity at his school.

“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.”

Though it is not definite if he’ll get a job at NASA, he has big plans for his future and career. He hopes to study physics and astrophysics at either MIT, Stanford or Princeton. His life will never be the same.

I have to thank my sister for telling me about Wolf Cukier. His story is one of a kind and shows that really anyone, at any age can make history. He didn’t hesitate when he applied for the internship, he didn’t look over that small detail in the dips of brightness. If he did, he wouldn’t have uncovered the out-of-this-world discovery waiting for him. He just went with the flow.

What incredible things are awaiting if you trust the opportunities you stumble upon? Wolf Cukier is just one of many examples of Young Achievers took action and are now living their dreams. You are capable, no matter your age to change the world… literally.

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