Scarsdale High School Senior Wolf Cukier Discovers Planet and Makes National Headlines
January 16, 2020
While interning at NASA last summer, SHS student Wolf Cukier ’20 discovered a planet 6.9 times larger than Earth. Cukier is a part of the Science Research program here at SHS.
The summer before senior year is busy, to say the least. With supplements to write and the college process looming over students’ heads, it is a chaotic time. Amidst the stress, one SHS student found the time to make, literally, an out-of-this-world discovery.
While interning at NASA, an opportunity many people only dream of, Wolf Cukier ’20 noticed something out of the ordinary in the data that he was looking through. “There was a deep primary eclipse and then immediately after it, there was another dip. What this dip turned out to be was a planetary transit,” said Cukier.
From this initial realization emerged his discovery of TOI 1338 b, a new planet. The planet is more than 1300 light-years away, and orbits two stars in an ellipse.
Cukier’s exploration of the extraterrestrial began through the Science Research program. There, one of the requirements is to have a mentor to guide the student through the research they conduct in the summers after sophomore and junior years of high school. Through lots of emailing, Cukier was eventually referred to his mentor Ravi Kopparapu. “I did my first summer research with [Kopparapu] calculating Goldilocks zones around binary stars. What this means is how close or far away from a two-star system does a planet need to be in order to potentially support liquid water,” remarked Cukier. He was invited back to work with Kopparapau the following summer, but Kopparapau ended up traveling and Cukier found himself with his next mentor, Veselin Kostov.
Cukier interned with Kostov at NASA. Leading up to his arrival, Cukier was nervous, as the idea of his internship at NASA seemed daunting. He feared that the work he would be given could prove to be too difficult and complex since he was still in high school.
In the end, Kostov was able to find just the right work for Cukier to do—work that he would excel in after just three days of interning. With his mentor, Cukier aimed to find a circumbinary planet—one that orbits two stars. “The way I did this was [by] looking through data that was already known to be an ecliptic binary… What this means is that every set of two stars, whenever they orbit each other, they block the other one’s light that reaches our telescope. What this does is it creates a relatively distinct pattern dimming of the star system that is pretty easy to recognize,” explained Cukier. Using this process, Cukier made the life-changing discovery of the new planet that his brother suggested he name “EphremTopia” (after his favorite sibling, of course). (Alas, Cukier doesn’t get to name it.)
What has this discovery meant for Cukier thus far? “I’ve been spending way more time talking to people who work at news organizations than I would’ve ever dreamed of,” shared Cukier. The pressure is on for him. Making headlines on a national level is a lot to take in, especially for a 17-year-old. He admits that “it’s exhausting, talking to all these people, and you have to balance not sounding arrogant, not sounding too unsure of yourself, not making a scientific error on a broadcast to three million Americans.” For him, the process has been overwhelming.
Even with this tremendous discovery under his belt, the kind that scientists and researchers devote their lives to making, Cukier remains a normal SHS student. His favorite SciFi movie is still The Martian, and his favorite fantasy world remains Game of Thrones—a true representative of the SHS community in more ways than one.
Keep your eyes out for his name on SHS’s Notable Alumni Wikipedia page.