“My family is gunning for Wolftopia”
Wolf Cukier, a 17 year old highschooler from Scarsdale High, New York who joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt Maryland for a summer internship, found a new circumbinary planet on his 3rd day. Wolf was assigned to look at star brightness variations which had been recorded by NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), a satellite launched with the aim of finding planets outside our solar system.
Cukier was going through data that for a system that was flagged by other volunteers as an eclipsing binary, (a system where two stars circle around each other). After reviewing the data extensively, he concluded that the phenomenon he assumed to be a stellar eclipse, turned out to be a planet; confirmed by the inconsistency in the transit timing.
How Wolf Did It
TESS uses each of its four cameras to take an image of a certain portion of the sky for a duration of 30 minutes, at 27 day intervals. The brightness (or the variation of it) of each star is measured as it changes over time. In any given solar system, a planet must transit, i.e move in front of it’s (home system’s) star. A transiting planet causes a sudden drop in the star’s brightness by moving in front of it which is exactly how they’re singled out. Image data from TESS is run through a pattern identifying algorithm which can easily detect the transit for the bigger star, but it’s comparatively more difficult to do the same for the smaller star, since its smaller size leads to a dimmer profile (about one-third of our sun). The human eye is significantly superior at detecting non-periodic patterns in data, such as those that can be seen in transits from aforementioned systems.
The planet Wolf was able to discover, was dubbed “TOI 1338 b” (named after the system it was found in – TOI 1338). TOI 1338b or Wolftopia as his family would like to call it, is 6.9 times the size of the Earth (or roughly the size of Saturn) and is located at a distance of about 1300 light years away. The planet orbits two stars, which in-turn orbit each other, in an arrangement known as a binary system and a planet found in such a system is referred to as a “circumbinary” planet. “If you think to Luke [Skywalker]’s homeworld, Tatooine, from Star Wars, it’s like that. Every sunset, there’s gonna be two stars setting,” said Cukier, comparing it to Star Wars.
You can find a YouTube video embedded below, explaining in further detail how TOI 1338 b was found.
Why is TOI 1338b a big deal
Wolfopia is the first circumbinary planet found with the help of TESS and is the only planet found so far in TOI 1338. What makes this discovery exceptional is the fact that it’s tough to review transit data for a binary system, the difficulty arising due to the stars eclipsing each other periodically, made tougher by the difference in the sizes of both stars. While still just in highschool, it is safe to say that Cukier has a decent career ahead of him.
NASA’s TESS Program
Back in July 2018, NASA announced that they would start using their Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to find exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), including ones that could support life.
NASA expects to find upwards of 200,000 exo-plants within the next two years. This initiative will allow researchers to conduct followup studies in promising candidates and extensively examine that planet’s capacity to support life.