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This Scarsdale High School Senior Discovered a New Planet for NASA

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It’s difficult to imagine a more meteoric rise than that of 17-year-old Wolf Cukier. The Scarsdale High School senior scored a coveted internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland last summer and was soon thereafter rocketed to worldwide attention following confirmation that he had discovered a brand-new planet.

My mom is a geologist, so that love of science was passed on into me,” explains Cukier, who also interned at Goddard Space Flight Center with research scientist Ravi Kopparapu as a sophmore. “I’ve always seemed to like astronomy. I can’t tell you why, but it’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed. And so, as part of the science research program at my school, I wanted to do something in that field and narrowed it down to astrobiology as a topic that’s still interesting and accessible.”

Wolf Cukier presents his work at the Scarsdale High School Research Symposium in May 2019. / Photo by Beth Cukier

As a junior in the summer of 2019, Cukier returned to NASA as an intern and began searching binary planets with scientist Veselin Kostov. On the third day, he discovered a promising planetary specimen just 1,300 light-years away, in the constellation Pictor.

“At first, I didn’t know exactly what I had. It was one of about 100 interesting cases, and I thought this one was pretty promising, but I didn’t say to myself: Oh, this is definitely a new planet,” says Cukier. “So, I brought it to my mentor’s attention; we looked through it, and he said it might actually be a planet.”

Before he knew it, Cukier was whisked into the spotlight in January 2020, when NASA publicly announced that he had indeed discovered the genuine article, now named TOI 1338 b. “It’s kind of been overwhelming, the number of people who have been reaching out. A few people have recognized me on the street and while I am getting groceries,” says Cukier. “It’s just a weird experience to have.”

College is next on the docket for the budding astronomer, who will graduate in May. He says he has applied to Princeton, Stanford, and MIT but doesn’t have a top choice. “I don’t want to make a decision and then get disappointed, so I am waiting to see what happens,” says Cukier.

Yet, it was never the notoriety or big names that drove Cukier to look toward the stars. “I don’t really care for all the interviews and the fame, but what I do want is to create outreach and love of science,” he shares. “I know that I have been inspired by other people in my life and had opportunities presented to me because I am at Scarsdale, in a wonderful school system, and have wonderful parents. I know some people don’t necessarily have all this laid out on a silver platter for them, so I think the ability to inspire people to love science is probably the greatest accomplishment of this entire thing.”