Foundation internship helps launch space career

A love of space inspired by a visit to a planetarium when he was a child has seen Mikhael Sayat working in the space industry around the world, including in Thailand in 2020 on an Asia New Zealand Foundation internship. Mikhael is currently undertaking an internship with NASA while working on his PhD, which looks at quantum communications between satellites and optical ground stations.

In this video from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Mikhael talks about his NASA internship and what excites him about being part of the space industry

In 2020, Mikhael was selected for the Foundation internship with Thai space agency Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA).

Though only 22 at the time, Mikhael was far from a novice in the realm of space technology.

He had already been involved in researching astronomy and astronomical automation in Poland and had helped develop a high-altitude space telescope in Australia.

However, you have to go back more a few years to the moment that first ignited Mikhael’s interest in space, setting him on the trajectory he is now on.

Mikhael recalls the primary school field trip to Stardome Observatory and Planetarium in Auckland when he was eight years old: “The talks on the solar system, the universe, rockets, and humankind’s exploration into the unknown sparked the decision that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was nothing short of pure inspiration.”

Mikhael standing beside a dome telescope

Mikhael's main project during his internship was developing a satellite tracker using a telescope and dome system

So, by the time he undertook his internship with GISTDA, Mikhael was set on a career in space technology, but he says the internship propelled him further and helped him land the NASA internship.

“Having experience working at a national space agency widens your reach and capabilities.

“The GISTDA internship also led into my PhD, which involves quantum communications between satellites and optical ground stations. A big part of that is the tracking of satellites.”

The work he was involved with on developing GISTDA’s satellite tracking technology put him in a fantastic position when the NASA internship became available, he says.

“Importantly, when I was in GISTDA, I was interfacing between different software languages and architectures as well as different hardware. This is very similar to my work at NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) as part of the Artificial Intelligence, Analytics and Innovative Development Organization.

Mikhael says the best thing about the NASA internship is that he was directly involved in real-world space applications.

“In my projects, I use satellite images of Mars from the HiRISE dataset, which took pictures of the Martian terrain and landscape for image processing and machine learning.

“I will also be controlling the Open Source Rover currently in NASA JPL using next generation space computers. And all of this is done virtually from the other side of the world in New Zealand/ Australia.”


Mikhael working on a configuration of lasers

Mikhael working on a configuration of lasers

Mikhael says in the last few years, New Zealand’s space industry has gone from strength to strength and he would love to be involved in its development in the future.

“New Zealand is definitely in a very good position to contribute to the global space industry."

But for now, Mikhael’s focus is on his PhD, which he’s currently undertaking in Canberra as part of the Department of Quantum Science and Technology at the Australian National University.

He says quantum communications is an exciting and growing field.

“I think quantum will be the next revolutionising and paradigm-shifting industry.”