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By Abigail O’Rourke

In early January 2020, at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA information was released regarding the discovery of a new planet last summer by 17-year-old NASA intern and New York native Wolf Cukier.

Cukier is a high school senior from Scarsdale, New York. During his internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center during summer 2019, one of his first assignments was to help with a project known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite aka TESS.

What is TESS?

TESS is the newest member of the discovery family that all started with the Kepler Mission Satellite. The Kepler Mission surveyed a relatively tiny fraction of the universe for potential planets using the transiting method. The transit method is the easiest way to identify potential planetary bodies by studying the number of times dark masses blot out part of the light of bright stars. When a routine transit is spotted, this mass is then studied further in an attempt to determine if it is indeed a possible planet or simply space debris. Not all transiting bodies are admitted to the list of known planets. TESS studies an area of the sky 400 times larger than what was able to be observed by the Kepler satellite. It was launched April 18, 2018 from a Falcon 9 Rocket and is led by a team of MIT researchers.

What did the Kepler Mission accomplish? On May 10, 2016, NASA announced that the Kepler mission had verified 1,284 new planets since its launch in March 2009. Based on a study of the size of those planets, about 550 could potentially be rocky planets. Nine of these potential rocky planets orbit within their stars’ zone of human-type life habitability (the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” similar to the Earth’s zone in our Solar System). It would appear that planets are in fact more common than stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone; and it is the goal of TESS to exceed the success of the Kepler Mission.

Cukier’s Planet

As history would have it, on only his third day at Goddard, Cukier was making routine telescope observations of TOI 1338, a solar system 1,300 light years away from Earth, when he observed an object transiting a twin-binary system (a solar system with 2 stars instead of 1 like our sun).

After several weeks of research, it was established as conclusive that the object in question was indeed a planet some 6.9 times larger than Earth. This is what is known as a circumbinary planet. In plain geek terms…Tatooine…a planet that orbits twin suns that are orbiting each other closely.

Cukier was under strict orders to keep his discovery a secret until it had been thoroughly verified and the research could be presented at the meeting in Hawaii this month.

The ongoing discovery of exoplanets is an intriguing science all on its own. Even more beguiling is the possibility that some or all of these may have life of their own. Perhaps it is old and advanced, or possibly very young and unlearned; there is also the possibility that it is simple organic life such as basic plants or even just bacteria drifting through the atmosphere. The point is that we must always maintain an open mind. Not all life has the same needs as humans and general mammals. For instance, plants need carbon dioxide rich air. Aquatic animals need oxygenated water to breathe. Tube worms need boiling hydro-thermal vents and ice bacteria thrive in frozen climates. Even here on our Earth, life exists in areas that would be completely inhospitable to humanity. We should never let our preconceived biases cause us to underestimate the persistence of life.