Nayak shoots for the stars

Makenzie Graham, Staff Writer

Even when he was just a little kid watching PBS programs about it, Ayush Nayak (12) was always interested in space. Sitting on the sofa, he’d spend every Wednesday night watching documentaries. From focusing on stars, planets, moons, and astronauts, he loved anything and everything if it related to space.

“I just kept watching them and my parents just kept putting them on and I just liked it,” Nayak said. 

Nayak’s interest in the extraterrestrial continued through high school, leading him to start looking for opportunities to get more involved in astronomy as a sophomore. During the pandemic, he reached out to Pat Boyce, the executive director of B.R.I.E.F (Boyce Research Initiatives and Education Foundation), by email and the two have been working closely together ever since. 

B.R.I.E.F is an organization dedicated to providing opportunities for students to conduct research. Boyce-Astro, the part of B.R.I.E.F focused on astronomy, is headed partly by Pat Boyce.

Boyce allows his students to work with his valuable equipment. He owns land in California and Chile that houses telescopes costing up to $200,000, and lets the kids that he mentors  use them for whatever research that they would like to pursue. 

The first project Nayak was tasked with was figuring out different properties of binary stars, as they’re part of Boyce’s course.

“[Boyce] does mostly one course, which is doing binary star observations,” Nayak said. “[This is] essentially looking at two stars or a star system that has two stars in it that are kind of rotating each other.” 

Nayak’s success in this project through determining characteristics of the binary stars led him to receive the offer of assisting on Boyce’s personal project. The pair have been attempting to discover an exoplanet believed to be around the binary stars they have been looking at. This project has given Nayak a chance to work with many different observatories, and even develop software with NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). 

Near the start of the original course he took with Boyce in 2020, Nayak spent about an hour every day observing. During that summer his research became more intensive as the team was developing new software. Upon completing the main course, in partnership with another student, he embarked on another project that increased the time commitment. Because of this, Nayak began to spend two or three hours every day working.

The aspect of this work that Nayak enjoys the most is being the first person to view the discoveries. The software enables him to plug in the coordinates for where the star is believed to be and in return he gets, in his words, “a really, really cool image” of it. 

“There’s just so much sky that all the telescopes haven’t seen everything yet, and when you see something new that, you know, no one else has seen before in the way that I’m seeing it, it’s really awesome,” Nayak said. 

Having fostered his passion for all things space-related, Nayak plans on continuing in the field of astronomy. He’s already started doing this, having been accepted into a satellite launch program. An Artemis mission to the moon recently started and a part of it is sending around 100 nano-sized satellites up. 

The satellites are scheduled to be launched in 2023, so he is committed to astronomy until then “at the very least,” he said. In college, the plan is to pursue physics or astrophysics so he can continue to conduct research into space far into the future.

“I never stopped liking [space],” Nayak said. “I think a lot of people liked it in the beginning but then they just got bored of it. I think that’s the problem, is like, people just don’t continue.” 

Nayak’s own perseverance has paid off. Unlike others, he persisted, pursuing opportunities that have let him see cosmic features that most of us can only imagine.