AFRL scientist supports research effort with National Science Foundation at South Pole

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Capt. Michael Nayak, an AFRL scientist who works for the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing site in Hawaii, celebrated the holidays at home after spending two months at the South Pole where he supported a basic research effort for the Air Force and the National Science Foundation.

While in Antarctica, he performed daytime seeing observations at the South Pole designed to support the NSF-administered U.S. Antarctic Program. The observations he collected will support efforts by the Long-duration Antarctic Night and Daytime Imaging Telescope, also known as LANDIT, to observe signal fluctuations in Jupiter from the South Pole in 2019. Scientists will use this knowledge to develop tools and techniques for space situational awareness.

Nayak is one of two principal investigators who established this effort. Dr. Ryan Swindle, the other PI, also works at AMOS as the site’s lead engineer for space situational awareness research. The pair is working with a team of scientists from the Maui site in conjunction with several academic partners.

During his time at the South Pole, Nayak lived at Amundsen-Scott Research Station, named for the men who first traveled there in 1911. The station is one of three in Antarctica run by the United States. An international treaty in 1960 established Antarctica as a commons area for scientific research and tourism purposes only.

In early December, Nayak hosted a live broadcast from SuperDARN, a building located about half a mile from his residence. On a daily basis, he walked to and from this facility several times. He explained that since he passed the Geographic South Pole, he actually traveled “around the world on his daily commute, by crossing every longitude on the planet.”

Once Nayak reaches the SuperDARN, he does not sit with his laptop and drink warm coffee; instead, he drags a 250-pound sled loaded with equipment another 1,700 feet to his experiment site.

He described this trip as “a fairly vigorous trek” since the altitude is 9,300 feet above sea level. As a result, he breathed in about one-third less oxygen compared to normal conditions.

He asserts that the altitude was “quite a challenge” and says he appreciates “first-hand how tough it was for [early adventurers] to drag their sleds and literally gasp for breath.”

Meanwhile, the high altitude was not the only difference; there is constant daylight in the South Pole during the summer months (October through March). However, since the sun is low in the sky, it does not add warmth. Nayak explained that temperatures are brutally cold. During his live broadcast, he stepped outside and noted it was 40 degrees below zero.

“I’ve gotten a little bit used to it,” he explained, saying that the temperature is usually lower with the wind chill.

While his body adjusted to the constant daylight and the temperature, Nayak said his scientific equipment was quite different. The extreme cold presented an “engineering challenge” with repeated troubleshooting to ensure the instruments functioned properly.

Nayak utilized an optical telescope, and an array of solar scintillometers, to take atmospheric measurements. His work depended on the weather. In clear skies, he brought the telescope outside on the ice, connected it to a portable generator and then aligned it to the celestial sphere.

His goal was to track a star and measure the atmosphere between the telescope and that star. He used scintillometers to track oscillations in the sun’s brightness at very fast time-scales so that he could measure the atmospheric turbulence. Nayak said he typically completed several hours of observation at a time. When he finished, he moved his telescope indoors for safekeeping.

In 2019, Swindle and his team will travel to the South Pole to mount the permanent LANDIT telescope and observe Jupiter. Dr. Shadi Naderi, a mathematician at AMOS, will lead the complex modeling and simulation required to process the observation data. The goal is to document seismic activity and gather information about the planet’s interior physics.

Nayak says the permanent telescope will remain outside during the winter months where the South Pole receives no sunlight at all. There is complete darkness from April through August.

Preparations will be made so that the telescope can function in wind-chill temperatures as low as 150 degrees below zero. The goal is to complete a 100-day continuous observation of Jupiter, which will reveal how the interior of the planet operates. Afterward, they plan to study Saturn, and analyze the feasibility of applying similar principles to space situational awareness.


Nayak, a trained planetary scientist/astrophysicist, returned to AFRL after he completed his Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Science. While working at AMOS, he met Swindle, and the pair discovered they had common research goals.

“We had [both] been looking for a way to fuse the techniques that astronomers and astrophysicists use every day into Space Situational Awareness,” Nayak says.

The pair discussed various ideas and began assembling a research plan that focused on applying certain techniques from a field of study called helioseismology to study Jupiter and Saturn.

“We knew we needed the South Pole, and the 180-day darkness of winter to test our theories,” he said.

He explained that their research plan benefitted from good timing (the issuance of a broad level interagency agreement), useful contacts and access to the right equipment.

In May 2018, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, and the Director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. France Córdova, agreed that their organizations would collaborate on basic research in science and engineering. The two leaders outlined four categories of research areas. The LANDIT project falls under space sciences and geosciences.

After Nayak and Swindle finalized their research plan, they connected with Dr. Stacie Williams, the Remote Sensing Program Officer from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. She became their advocate, and AFOSR provided the first increment of funding. Williams contacted the NSF and forged an AFOSR-NSF Interagency Agreement to cover the research in Antarctica.

In addition to good timing and well-placed advocacy, Nayak and Swindle benefited from the expertise and government-owned equipment at AMOS. He explained that without [access to this knowledge and equipment], the project would have been too expensive. Swindle credits 1st Lt. Peter Thomas, a software engineer from the Maui High Performance Computing Center, with developing code for instrument operations and data collection.

Nayak credits his military leadership for helping him meet “the logistics deadlines for an Antarctic deployment.” He explained that the commander of AMOS, Lt. Col. Erik Stockham, appreciated the future applications of this research. This knowledge and insight helped to expedite the approval process.

Journey to the South Pole

Nayak began his journey in New Zealand where he flew on an Air Force C-17 to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Next, he flew from McMurdo Station to the South Pole Station, crossing the Trans-Antarctic Mountains on an LC-130, a modified C-130 with massive skis. When he stepped off the airplane, the wind-chill temperature was 77 degrees below zero. Even with the extreme cold, Nayak asserts that life at the South Pole was enjoyable and interesting.

He saw all three types of animals that live on Antarctica: penguins, seals, and skuas, which are large predatory birds. Nayak explained that people [keep] a watchful eye out for skuas since they swoop down and eat anything.

He even celebrated Thanksgiving “South Pole style”, saying that, “the people go all out for the holidays.” Nayak explained that “everyone came together and celebrated as a big family,” and he described the meal as “one of the best Thanksgiving dinners [he’s] ever had.”

In addition to the harsh conditions, Nayak also had to adjust to the limited water supply. He received just four minutes of shower time per week.

It is tough to get supplies to the South Pole, he explained. The United States military is responsible for all cargo airlift under “Operation Deep Freeze”, and “everything is flown in from food to toilet paper.”

Nayak describes the people who work at the South Pole as amazing. He says that, “everybody is here because they want to be here.” He asserts that this makes for an energized environment where “people come together and do what needs to be done.”

The average workday on the South Pole is 12 hours, seven days a week, and Nayak says that most people work more than this.

During rare breaks, Nayak says that people enjoy making arts and crafts, tending the Station’s greenhouse, and kitesurfing, an activity that requires wind, a parachute-like kite and a snowboard.

Even though Nayak arrived at the South Pole without his Game of Thrones DVDs (which he removed from his luggage due to weight restrictions), he says that he never became bored.

“There [was] plenty to do,” he says, explaining that the tight-knit community hosted game and movie nights.

Nayak also enjoyed taking pictures and writing about his time at the South Pole. He blogged for the first time saying that he wanted to capture this “unique experience with so many moving parts.”

Nayak now plans to leave Maui to report to the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, where he will study to be an Experimental Flight Test Engineer. He says that he enjoys being in the Air Force due to the unique assignments and opportunities.

“I don’t think there’s any place in the civilian world where you could go from being a satellite flight director, to a planetary scientist, to deploying to the South Pole, to back-seating in supersonic airplanes,” he says.

Nayak hopes to deploy to the South Pole again next year, but notes that Swindle and Naderi will be the primary PIs on the project after 2019 due to his test pilot school assignment.

“If [this research] is successful, we would like to acquire funding and put a whole suite of astronomy and astrophysics tools to work within space situational awareness,” he said.