TOI 1338b: Our Star Wars Planet
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
by Brian Cho
There is a particular scene in the 4th Star Wars movie, “A New Hope”, that lasts around 35 seconds in length. It is a scene with Luke Skywalker stepping out of his modest hut on the planet Tatooine, his expression in awe as he gazes at a binary sunset. Two gleaming suns descend steadily while the Force theme heightens to all its glory. It truly is a beautiful moment. Nevertheless, it is still a moment from a sci-fi film - a mere fantasy. However, that fantasy has now become a reality. Several weeks ago, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) disclosed the discovery of a new planet situated in the Goldilocks Zone. And this astonishing feat was accomplished by no other than a 17-year-old intern.
Wolf Cukier, a rising high school senior at Scarsdale High, had just started an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He was assigned to examine data that was sent from space via TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). Before delving into how Cukier managed to find a near authentic replica of Tatooine in our universe, it is important to understand the logistics and the purpose of TESS. Designed by NASA and launched on April 18, 2018, TESS is a telescope that operates in space and was fabricated for the search for exoplanets. It stabilizes on a certain sector of space, regularly near the proximity of a star. When it observes transient drops in the star’s brightness, it is a clear indication that an object - normally a planet - is orbiting it. That information is sent back to NASA for further scrutiny. And that is exactly what happened with Cukier.
Cukier was determined to discover a circumbinary planet, one that orbits not one but two stars, very much like Luke Skywalker’s home planet in “A New Hope.” According to Cukier, he was examining data that was formerly flagged down as an eclipsing binary. Three days into his internship, he received a signal that notified him about an unfathomable entity obstructing the light of two stars and decided to flag it. This signal was sent from a system named TOI 1338. He then pinpointed onto the system, and distinguished it as an exoplanet. The size of the planet was 6.9 times larger than that of Earth and most likely uninhabitable. Nevertheless, the discovery of an exoplanet, especially one that revolves around two stars, was monumental. Although Cukier’s brother wished it to be named Wolftopia, the exoplanet was codenamed TOI 1338b, based on the system it was located in.
In the end, Cukier managed to uncover something colossal by doing one simple thing: looking at things from a different angle. Instead of approaching the task of finding an exoplanet on a conventional method (simply looking for exoplanets), he decided to take on this challenge from a different viewpoint. Perhaps an even laborious one. He decided to narrow his searchings to finding a circumbinary planet and ultimately succeeded in finding one. This momentous occasion perhaps serves as a deeper analogy of our perception of concepts. Looking at subject matters from an unorthodox viewpoint may lead to success, just like it did for Cukier. It’s the same as simply looking through a kaleidoscope.