It’s probably fair to say that Wolf Cukier’s dreams are coming true. The 17-year-old is only three days into his internship with NASA, but already he’s on the brink of something big. Tirelessly analyzing satellite photos of space, he notices something strange: a kind of blip in the imagery. It could be nothing, but this savvy teen senses he might be looking at something extraordinary. He takes the image to his superiors, and this is where things start to get interesting: the kid has found something truly monumental.
Despite only being a few days into a work placement set to last for two months, Cukier has already announced himself as an astronomer of the future. His mentors asked him to study imagery taken with a sophisticated telescope known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). But they hardly could’ve expected him to come up with results so quickly.
According to NASA, the TESS telescope represents a clear effort to locate potentially life-sustaining planets beyond the Earth. The satellite was sent to space back in 2018, with the intention that it would survey great swathes of our galaxy. Basically, TESS examines the light emitted from distant stars. If there are discrepancies in how this light travels, then it might be that an undiscovered planet is blocking it. And maybe such a planet could bear signs of life.
Intern Cukier was asked to cast an eye over some of the images from TESS, paying particular attention to the light from stars. He was obviously the right person for the job, because he noticed something quickly. Yes, he astutely realized that something was obstructing the view of a particular couple of stars. And he knew that this might have been an important observation.
When Cukier told his NASA superiors about what he’d noticed in the image, they took the young man seriously. They decided to take a look at his discovery, which was a great choice. The teenager, it turned out, really had found something to get excited about.