Grad Profile: Michael Nayak

How the future of the Satellite Industry is guiding my Graduate Career

March 24, 2015

Michael Nayak, Earth & Planetary Sciences Graduate Student.

I am a second year PhD graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, in the Earth & Planetary Sciences program, working with Assistant Professor Ian Garrick-Bethell. My research examines anomalous magnetism in the lunar South Pole-Aitken basin. I’m also interested in modeling the interior of the Moon, and the mechanics of crater formation on the Martian Moon Phobos, and I work with the Mission Design Center at NASA Ames.

A laptop today is more powerful than advanced computers that filled a room in the 1980s, and I believe the space industry can go the same way. My advisor, Dr. Garrick-Bethell, is working to change that with cubesatellite concepts that host lunar science payloads. I’m a firm believer in small satellites, and their potential to change the world we live in, making UCSC a natural fit with my research interests and professional goals.  

As a master’s student at Embry-Riddle University, I worked with my advisor Dr. Bogdan Udrea to further develop an original method, using a simple payload of a commercially available laser rangefinder and an infrared camera, to perform 3D imaging in space. Dr. Udrea and I ended up co-proposing the design of a nanosatellite to fly this payload, together with Dr. Adam Huang (Professor, Mechanical Engineering, University of Arkansas). Today, that design is ARAPAIMA.

Model of ARAPAIMA with solar arrays stowed, opened, and the optical payload subassembly

One of nine proposals nationally selected to design and build small satellites through the Air Force Research Laboratory’s University Nanosatellite program, the Application for RSO Automated Proximity Analysis and IMAging - ARAPAIMA - mission aims to conduct three-dimensional, visible and infrared imaging of Resident Space Objects (RSOs). By doing so, it will demonstrate the power of nanosatellite technology in the reduction of dangerous debris in orbit around the Earth, as well as in future asteroid characterization applications. In addition to PhD work at UCSC, I serve as the co-Principal Investigator for ARAPAIMA.

With a thousandth of the cost of a normal space program, we’re hoping to design, purchase, and integrate flight-ready hardware, and demonstrate beginning to end mission capabilities.

Space missions are so expensive that even successful programs are becoming easy targets in an austere budget environment. The best ideas are simply not guaranteed to see the light of the day. However, the same miniaturized hardware that makes iPhones possible can help reduce the cost of large, clunky satellites and make way for a new paradigm: smaller satellites, the size of a shoebox, packed with tiny, single-string components that can have close to the same utility as their larger, more expensive cousins.

One of Michael's hobbies; Coming in for a high-performance parachute landing above Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What do people remember about the past, and why? In five hundred years, when people look back on my generation, what will remain of us to be remembered for? I believe the answer to that is what we do today, and the innovations we make tomorrow, in space. 

Out of all the amazing innovations blooming every minute, I truly believe innovations in space will change our future the most. That is what carried me through a Bachelors and Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering, and ultimately what brought me to UC Santa Cruz and the PhD program in Earth & Planetary Sciences.