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Editorial: Youthful discoveries: High school interns help NASA find new planets

The Editorial Board, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Op Eds

NASA's recent discovery of two new planets -- one scientifically resembling Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine and another that's Earth-sized and possibly habitable -- are inspiring for a reason beyond the thrill of discovery.

Both were found by, or with the help of, high school students.

The two cases were presented this month to the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu.

Wolf Cukier, 17, was interning at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., when he spotted variations in data collected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS.

"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," Wolf said.

The planet, now known as TIO 1338 b, is the first instance of a circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars, reminding "Star Wars" fans like Wolf of its protagonist's two-sunned home planet. It is more than 1,300 light years away from Earth.

High school sophomore Alton Spencer helped discover a planet almost seven times as big as Earth. The newly discovered world, TOI 700 d, is the first Earth-sized planet in its star's habitable zone.

 

TESS, for which both students interned, was designed and launched specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars. According to Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA's headquarters in Washington, "Discovering TOI 700 d is a key science finding for TESS."

Both planets are many light years away from Earth, making them impossible to reach with existing technology. Having discovered that at least one such planet exists offers incentive to develop the technology to visit them.

That's the sort of hope NASA's two young stars should inspire. They, like Luke Skywalker in the first "Star Wars" movie, are teenagers looking for a challenge. If nothing else, joining them in their fascination is fun.

(c)2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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