UL-Lafayette students wait for NASA to launch their satellite

The partial shutdown of the federal government may claim another hostage — a small satellite built by a team of University of Louisiana at Lafayette students.

The team’s satellite earned a spot two years ago as auxiliary payload on a NASA launch. Logistical delays postponed the launch to early November — but the government budget battle may close that window until Congress approves a government spending plan.

“The last we heard is that our launch will be postponed, but we don’t know for how long,” said Rizwan Merchant, a senior majoring in computer science.

The UL-Lafayette Cajun Advanced Picosatellite Experiment team — or CAPE — designed and built a small communications satellite they’re calling CAPE-2. The device, which measures 10 cubic centimeters and weighs 2.2 pounds, is capable of converting text to speech, Tweeting, sending emails, repeating verbal messages transmitted via radio, transferring files and collecting data from buoys in the Gulf of Mexico.

The UL-Lafayette team’s satellite is one of 11 selected for NASA’s ELaNA-4 mission. That’s short for Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, a program for university and high school students.

The university began the CAPE program nearly 10 years ago and its first small satellite — CAPE-1 — launched in 2007.

Serving on the current CAPE team are 11 students and their mentor, Nick Pugh, a telecommunications expert.

Lessons learned by the initial CAPE team led to major design changes in the improved CAPE-2 to extend its operating life, said Alex Lanclos, a CAPE team member and a senior studying electrical engineering.

The first satellite was battery-powered with solar panels powering the device when exposed to the sun. But, for unknown reasons the satellite’s power failed. “We designed a better casing for the batteries and deployable solar panels,” said Lanclos, 21, of Church Point.

As CAPE waits for confirmation of its launch date, a team of students continues its development of a free-floating buoy that will transmit data to CAPE-2 from the Gulf. The buoy’s sensors will collect data such as air and water temperature, air pressure and wave height, said Nathan Cooley, a sophomore studying electrical engineering. The device also will be outfitted with a global positioning system.

“The goal is to eventually have a team of buoys activated that can share large packets of data,”Cooley said.

The CAPE program provides students a chance to apply their classroom knowledge and gain experience working in a team, said Travis Loftin, 36, an electrical engineering senior from Abbeville who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology but opted to explore a new career.

The teamwork also enables students to learn from each other, said Sabrina Bradley-Powell, a sophomore studying electrical engineering.

“A lot of people go to college not knowing how to work in a team; but once you get in the real world, that’s what it’s like,” she said.

The engineering and space technology learning opportunities extend beyond campus with plans for programs for Lafayette Parish seventh graders, Merchant said.

The team also hopes to attract more interest via Twitter. The satellite’s handle: @CAPE_2. Its out-of-this-world musings could translate into money for the CAPE program (#spaceforsale), Merchant said.

“We’re going to try to do one Tweet a day and are thinking about selling the Tweets to business advertisers,” he said. “It could be a cool thing for companies. They can have an advertisement space in space.”

And, the ad revenue could boost the program, Merchant said.

“We have the only program in Louisiana that is like this,” he said. “We were the first university in the state to launch a satellite and now, we’ll have the second.”

The team wants the community to be a part of their big day — whenever it is.

“We’re hoping to have a launch party with a live feed from the launch,” Merchant said.

The start of that countdown is still to be determined. Keep that calendar open, Lafayette.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, to reflect that Rizwan Merchant is majoring in computer science.