Tatooine Discovered? NASA's TESS Satellite Finds Exoplanet With Two Suns, Thanks to High School Intern
While the rest of you have already stopped going to the gym despite your resolutions to "get fit" in 2020, NASA's TESS satellite has been keeping busy exploring the universe. Just days after announcing TESS' discovery of a an Earth-like exoplanet in it's sun's habitable zone, NASA announced that the hard-working satellite has uncovered an exoplanet orbiting two stars: the first such system to be detected by TESS. If you're not ashamed of your New Year's failure yet, here's the real kicker: the system was identified by Wolf Cukier, a rising high school senior from New York.
You know what I did between my junior and senior year of high school? Neither do I.
Cukier, on the other hand, was interning at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland over the summer where he was tasked with analyzing variations in star brightness in images captured by TESS. A NASA press release has Cukier describing his finding.
"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 said. "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."
That planet, since named TOI 1338b, is approximately 6.9 times the size of Earth and is the only planet in its system, located 1,300 light years away. It orbits two stars – one about 10% more massive than our single sun and another with about one-third of our sun's mass – which, in turn, orbit each other every 15 Earth days. This type of orbit is particularly difficult to detect. Indeed, upon further investigation, researchers were only able to observe TOI 1338b's transit past the larger of the two stars, which occurred every 93-95 Earth days.
Veselin Kostov, a SETI Institute and Goddard research scientist and lead author of a forthcoming paper (co-authored by Cukier, mind you) describing the discovery, elaborated on the trouble that computers often have in identifying planets in binary star systems. "These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with," Kostov said. "The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems."
Fortunately for NASA, they had Cukier's eyes doing just that.