Small-satellite entrepreneurs will find their best customers in the military with easily adaptable and reasonably inexpensive products, a panel of space experts says.
Smaller satellites also can provide military and commercial needs that are not now being met."There is a new dedication in NASA to the low end of the spectrum and smaller satellites," said John Townsend, director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Five major projects at Goddard are on hold, Townsend said this week at the Second Annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astrophysics Conference at Utah State University, because the Challenger explosion grounded the shuttle fleet.
"The fact that we weren't flying made things critical," he said.
The most beneficial satellites would be flexible enough to launch at varying elevations for diverse purposes, and be reasonably priced, the panelists said.
"I think the thing that's going to decide how successful small satellites are in this world - and I'll define small as being something you can get your arms around - is economies of scale," Townsend said.
"Finding programs (under which) one can build a reasonable number of satellites, the same generic type that can fly different experiments for different purposes or monitor things for different purposes, you get both the economies of being able to buy your parts in large quantities" and learn more about what is possible with the product, Townsend said.
And for the Army, satellites enabling communication between combat units across a hill or across a theater are most needed.
"While the Army was a leader in space back in the (atomic bomb physicist Werner) Von Braun days, and we took a few steps back and allowed some of our sister service to go to the forefront, we realize that it's not all in the mud, and we gotta look up," said Col. Ronan Ellis, U.S. Army Space Institute commandant.
"We expect space to enhance our ability to execute our doctrine, and our doctrine is air-land battle," said Ellis, who oversees the Army program that was formed last January to examine using space to advance ground operations.
"We think the greatest payoffs are in the areas of communications and intelligence," including surveillance, meteorology and map-making, Ellis said.
The American military is precluded from entering many places and situations in which the United States has an interest because of geographical, political and constitutional considerations.
And battle commanders always are interested in the weather.
"It's sad to say that you can go to your hotel today and watch Cable News Network (and) see the Weather Channel. You cannot see the Weather Channel in your tactical command post in the United States Air Force, the United States Army, or on a carrier in the United States Navy. You have to go to your hotel," Ellis said.
The panelists agreed small satellites are not necessarily cheap satellites, and the military is an important market and have the potential for buying in large quantities.
"I'd really like to ask the whole space community to come to us with ideas," said George Donahue, director of the Aerospace and Strategic Technology Office, which looks at military applications of space research and hardware.