In Space They Can’t Hear You Lie
If a photograph seems far-fetched, slather on a layer of narrative. Without altering a pixel, text can utterly change a photograph, especially a compelling space age backstory stuffed with indecipherable acronym-laden detail.
NASA photographs show a newly discovered planet orbiting a star 1,300 light-years from earth in the constellation Pictor. Bearing the name TOI 1338 b, the planet is stunning—iridescent swirls of pink and blue, eddies of semi-transparent shimmering cloud. Not only that, but TOI 1338 b was discovered by Wolf Cukier, a 17-year-old high school student on day three of his two-month NASA summer internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
The pink planet “photographs” are fantasy-based digital illustrations, nothing more. (Created in a C++ programming environment using an algorithm by Íñigo Quílez that generates organic-looking textures and noise-based warping rendered in OpenGL 2.1 on a Raspberry PI, but I’m sure you guessed as much.) The images are among hundreds of fantasy planets produced by a Computer Science and Engineering Department student at the University of Nevada. She (?) operates under the Tumblr handle “Squids-among-stars.”
So, the “NASA photographs” of a new planet are fabrications. The story of Wolf Cukier, however, is fact. The 17-year-old did discover a new planet on day three of his two-month high school student NASA internship. “I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circle around each other, and from our view eclipse each other every orbit. 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.” Cukier’s find is indeed called TOI 1338 b. It is 6.9 times larger than earth and 1,300 light years distant, but it is unseen, its existence sensed by a gravitational wobble, and definitely unphotographed.