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Discoveries of new exoplanets — worlds orbiting stars other than our own — continue at a wonderful rate, Some of them are found by teenaged astronomers.

Wolf Cukier, a 17 year old at Scarsdale High School in New York, loves science and exoplanets. He applied for an internship with NASA during his junior year. He was accepted to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He began in summer 2019, and 3 days later he discovered a new exoplanet. NASA made the announcement on their website, after validating the teenager’s work. TOI1338 b is a Neptune-like exoplanet 1200 light years from Earth.

15-year-old Tom Wagg first detected another gas giant exoplanet while doing work-study at Keele University in England in 2015. Further observations have now confirmed the existence of the alien world, which lies about 1,000 light-years from Earth and is known as WASP-142b. It took two years to confirm that WASP-142b was a planet, with help from astronomers from the University of Geneva and the University of Liege.

artist’s impression of planet by David A. Hardy

In 2021 two high school students from the United States became the youngest people to discover four new exoplanets. Their peer-reviewed research paper on this spectacular discovery was published in The Astronomical Journal. According to The Harvard Gazette, 16-year-old junior Kartik Pinglé and 18-year-old senior Jasmine Wright were part of the Student Research Mentoring Program (SRMP) at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard & Smithsonian. The planets orbit TESS Object of Interest (TOI) 1233, which is a bright Sun-like star located 200-light-years away from Earth.

For centuries only a handful of astronomers even had access to equipment to look for planets. How are these young people able to do this advanced work?

mosaic of the southern sky combines 208 images taken by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

In Wolf’s words: “I was looking at data from the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project … it’s a project where ordinary people are able to log on to their computers from home and help scientists find planets. I was looking for small dips in the light curve data.”

When scientists make a chart showing how the brightness of a star changes, it’s called a light-curve. When a planet orbits in front of a star, there’s a brief dip in the brightness or light curve. This is called a transit. The change is so tiny compared to the massive brightness of a star that it takes special technology to see the transit. For example, TESS uses 4 charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras mounted on a satellite, that are carefully calibrated and make new observations every two minutes. This creates terabytes of data every week, and citizen scientists, including high school students, can help sift through the data.

Tom Wagg used data from a ground based system called WASP that also has a network of CCD cameras. It’s harder to see transits on Earth (because of our atmosphere), but still possible and hundreds of exoplanets are found this way.

The JWST is adding even more data, since it can search for even fainter signals, from smaller, Earth-sized planets. The new raw information likely includes clues to the existence of thousands of new exoplanets waiting to be discovered.

Tom is now in the Astronomy Department at University of Washington, Wolf is at Princeton, Jasmine at University of Colorado.

Even the most gifted astronomers all have humble beginnings. Our recent history is dotted with remarkable discoveries made by people just starting out on their journeys. You could be one of those people, finding alien planets in your spare time. What worlds will you discover?

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David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.

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