Student Intern Discovers Planet With Two Suns

A student intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has discovered a planet orbiting two binary stars. It’s the first one the TESS team has spotted. Find out why this discovery tells us more about our own planet’s formation.

As a student, I didn’t have many summer jobs that were course-related or career-oriented. I picked up what work I could find as a farmhand or a construction labourer.

The good part was that these industries paid you an adult wage if you could produce an adult day’s work. There wasn’t much ageism. Bosses judged your skill and effort and didn’t care very much about your age or background.

I did come upon one student internship in my last summer break as a university student, which I enjoyed immensely. It was at what is now Pearson International Airport in Toronto. I helped a wonderful mentor to administer the airport’s capital project portfolio.


She taught me many valuable things and gave me a glowing, door-opening reference. That became invaluable when I sought my first full-time job. I’ll always be in her debt.

We were part of the planning department. That made me privy to the plans about the not yet built Terminal 3 and many other projects that are now in place and taken for granted. It was rare for a student intern to be entrusted with these confidential plans.

It was a great experience because, for those four months, the student intern version of me found out what office life and office politics were like for the first time. I knew the office world was for me, and that’s where I spent the rest of my career.


I was hoping to land a full-time job at the airport, and there were plans in the works to make my student internship into a permanent place for me. Sadly, budget cuts made those plans fall through. Looking back, I’m glad they did.

Otherwise, the most rewarding job of my career wouldn’t have fallen into my lap shortly after that. I pursued it for 20 years. Regardless of my experience, many student interns do end up with a full-time job, and HR experts say it’s usually a win for both parties.

It certainly was at NASA last week. High school senior Wulf Cukier accepted a student internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.


They gave him the somewhat tedious job of reviewing the tiny variations of star brightness measured by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). These variations had been pre-screened by volunteer citizen scientists.

He double-checked everything the volunteers had labelled as an eclipsing binary star system. These are cases where one binary star eclipses its partner.

On his third day, the student intern noticed a situation where the timing of the signal was incorrect for a binary stellar eclipse. Further analysis showed that Cukier had discovered a brand new planet.


It wasn’t just any planet. Discovering planets is becoming routine for the TESS team now. It was a solar system where one planet orbits two suns. It’s the first so-called circumbinary planet the TESS team has uncovered.

The team, including Cukier, reported their findings to the American Astronomical Society last Monday at their annual conference. The research paper credits student intern Wolf Cukier as a co-author.

Cokier’s new world is in the star system TESS Object of Interest 1338 (TOI 1338 for short). The planet is designated TOI 1338 b. The binary stars in the system orbit one another every 15 days.


Located in the southern constellation Pictor, these objects are about 1,300 light-years away. One of the stars is a lot like our sun, only 10% larger. The other star is only about 1/3 the mass of the sun and is very cool and dim.

Planet 1338 b itself is quite large. It’s roughly the size of Neptune or Saturn, or about 6.9 times larger than Earth. The planet’s plane of orbit is almost identical to that of the binary stars. As a result, an observer on that planet would see very frequent solar eclipses.

This is a case where humans, even student interns, still outperform computers. Artificial intelligence applications using algorithms are not reliable for student intern Cukier’s screening tasks. It takes a keen human eye, and a human mind that can relate to non-periodic patterns to find anomalies like Cukier spotted in TOI 1338.


This isn’t the very first planet we have found orbiting a pair of binary stars. The Kepler/K2 space telescope spotted 12 planets like this in 10 other star systems.

In the past, project teams have tended to detect only massive planets like this. TESS is capable of locating smaller versions of this type of world. This is explained more fully in Alvaro Giminez et al’s book, Close Binaries in the 21st Century: New Opportunities and Challenges

Lao Tsu described the relationship between mentor and student intern like this. “Therefore, the skillful person is the teacher of the person without skill. The person without skill is the material for the skillful person.If you do not respect the teacher, if you do not care for the student, you are on the road to confusion and your cleverness will not save you.” We can be grateful to NASA and to Wulf Kukier for avoiding this hazard and making their mentorship an especially productive one.


During its mission, TESS will encounter hundreds of thousands of eclipsing binary star systems like TOI 1338. The team expects to find many more circumbinary planets to observe and from which to learn new lessons about how planets form and function.

We always have more to learn if we dare to kno

Learn more:
New York Times
Close Binaries in the 21st Century: New Opportunities and Challenges
Astrobiology: 3 Questions We Need to Answer
Exoplanet Giant Orbiting Tiny White Dwarf
Is Planet X a Black Hole?
Why Mars? Why Not Life on Venus?

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