You don’t have to be an experienced astronomer to make some interstellar discoveries. Seventeen-year-old high school student, Wolf Culkier, found a planet almost seven times bigger than Earth!

During the summer after his junior year at Scarsdale High School in New York, Culkier was participating in an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He was assigned to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and upload them to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project.

“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 in a NASA press statement. “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.”

The TOI 1338 system sits 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. According to NASA, the two stars orbit each other every 15 days. One star is approximately 10 percent larger than our Sun and the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun’s size. The planet itself, which is the only known one in the system, is about 6.9 times larger than Earth.

“These are the types of signals that algorithms really struggle with,” said lead author Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and Goddard. “The human eye is extremely good at finding patterns in data, especially non-periodic patterns like those we see in transits from these systems.”

Lucky for Culkier and NASA, he has a keen eye and was able to spot the anomaly, which turned out to be a major discovery.

If space exploration is right up your junior astronomer’s alley, you can join the hunt as well. The Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project invites anyone to help conduct real research from home. Check out the website here for more information.

—Shahrzad Warkentin

Featured photo: Mathew Schwartz via Unsplash

 

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