When he was a child, Siddhesh Naik’s mother colored his imagination with ancient myths about Roman eponyms of the sky. Those fascinations remained with him through childhood and ultimately led him to CU-Boulder to study aerospace engineering.
During the four years Naik spent at the University of Mumbai, India, studying mechanical engineering, he became fixated with the European space mission Rosetta and the craft’s programmed orbit of 11 years that guided it toward Comet 67P.
“How did they know exactly what was going to happen?” Naik wondered. “That spacecraft is going to sleep for a certain period and then it’s going to wake up. I wanted to know how that works.”
Naik graduated and moved to Boulder in 2013 to gain a true understanding of the mechanics driving that mission’s design. He joined CU’s aerospace engineering graduate program and LASP to work on the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS), a 4-year project funded by NASA to develop a nano-satellite, or CubeSat, measuring that will launch in late 2015 to study the sun’s solar flares.
“This was the ideal thread for me to do what I wanted to do,“ said Naik. “I came to CU's astrodynamics program because CU is one of the leaders in astrodynamics and satellite navigation,” he explained.
After Naik spent his first fall and spring semester with the team, MinXSS’s seasoned solar physicist and project manager Tom Woods hired him as the mechanical lead over summer 2014.
“After being on the project for two semesters, I loved it so much that I stayed on for a third semester,” Naik said.
He collaborated with LASP mentors and other students to design and construct the satellite.
“The best thing is that you have to work in a team of 12 people, with different backgrounds and technical skill sets,” said Naik. “It’s just a great experience.”
At the beginning of his second year in the program, Naik became inspired to study GPS navigation. The work of Kristine Larson, a CU-Boulder professor of satellite navigation and remote sensing, caught his eye. Larson studies high-precision tracking systems that use Global Navigation Satellite Systems Reflectometry, a process of measuring the reflections of navigation signals sent from satellites to Earth as they bounce off of a desired landscape, to detect spontaneous volcanic ash plumes known to disrupt aircraft control. Naik joined Larson’s lab to analyze those measurements. He is using data generated from GPS receivers presently stationed near volcanoes to develop new algorithms that can be used to locate volcanic plumes.
“I had a look at data from Mount Redoubt in Alaska. Now, I’m looking at Mount Etna in Italy,” said Naik. He may also assess volcanic activity in New Zealand, Iceland and Japan.
Naik’s enthusiasm for GNSS-R and Larson’s research grew, so he decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the field of remote sensing. After the dissertation, Naik added, he envisions opening his own business by developing an innovative tracking system, like one that locates a lost set of keys.
Naik also has served as vice president of CU’s Students for the Exploration Development of Space, an outreach group promoting space education and student involvement in space exploration. Founded by researchers from MIT and Princeton University in 1980, SEDS is an international organization with student chapters growing in countries like India and Canada. In 2011, the group was the first to invite Bill Nye to speak at SEDS USA’s annual conference, Space Vision, where students and young professionals come together to deliberate the future of aerospace science. The club also sponsored fellow student group Colorado Boulder Rocketry Association in the SEDS USA Rocketry Challenge last year — which they won.
“CUSEDS is one of the strongest chapters in the SEDS family in the U.S.,” said Naik, who added that the club wouldn't be as successful without CU’s continued support. “There are not many chapters in the country which have this kind of solid backing.”
Naik also spends his free time volunteering for the international nonprofit Association for India’s Development Colorado Chapter, which raises money for community groups in India who improve rural education and alleviate poverty.
“When I decided to do aerospace in the U.S., everybody back in India said I was stupid,” recalled Naik. “They said you’re never going to find a job, so you’re never going to be funded.”
But Naik overcame such odds—and he wants to share his secrets with prospective international students.
“Be willing to take that risk,” he said. “Something will work out...if you’re willing to take that one step forward.”