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Small satellites represent the wave of the future, according to the executive officers of the small satellite companies who spoke recently at Utah State University's third annual Conference on Small Satellites.

Small satellites have a variety of promising market applications, said David W. Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Orbital Systems Corp., headquartered in Virginia.He said "small" is sometimes defined by weight and sometimes defined by low cost, but he sees small satellites as systems that "permit dramatically more widespread use and decentralized control by many more customers than the large space systems we have become accustomed to over the past 20 or 25 years."

The gathering momentum toward "small," he said, reflects a change in the space industry similar to the 1970s revolution in personal computers.

About 250 people, representing industrial, military, academic and NASA interests, attended last week's three-day conference, co-sponsored by the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics.

Participants in the growing microspace industry represent small and large companies and emerging and established companies. Among those speaking at the USU conference were executives of Ball Space Systems Division, Defense Systems Inc., Fairchild Space Co., ARDAK Corp., Intraspace Corp., Astronautics and Globesat.

In his keynote address to the conference, Thompson said that four broad areas in which small satellites will be essential are communications, environmental monitoring, tactical military systems and fast turnaround gathering of research information.

"It's difficult to predict all the markets. Just as the pioneers at Apple Computer didn't predict the advent of spreadsheets when they developed the Apple II, we in the microspace industry have yet to discover the `Visicalc,' never mind the `Lotus 1, 2, 3' of our industry."

Thompson suggested that low-cost satellites might give rise to a global satellite-based paging service and might be used to provide continuously updated road maps for automobile drivers - a kind of "Rand McNally" satellite. Subscriptions could be available for various services.

"Small satellites return space proj-ects to a human scale, where creativity, dedication and spirit can reinvigorate the fourth decade," Thompson said.

He said space projects no longer require the manpower and resources of a large government agency or major corporation for development and production and that very small customers can be served. He emphasized that the satellites are truly new and different.

"Today's microsystems are much more capable than their predecessors, partly because they exploit technologies that were not available in the early years of our space activities."

The new small satellites combine increased power system efficiency, advanced microprocessors and low-cost ground stations.

Some of the new technology was developed for use on larger satellites, Thompson said. Other technologies were pioneered in the Strategic Defense Initiative program, and others originated outside the government, in universities and the microelectronics industry.

Although the historical trend has generally been toward larger systems, the AMSATs, serving amateur radio users more than two decades, remained small, Thompson said, proving that services could be provided to a widespread group of users at an affordable cost.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) recent strong support of small space systems reflects the increased reliance of the U.S. military on space-based communications and intelligence, he said.

Paralleling the development of the small satellites is the privately funded, government-assisted development of launch vehicles, Thompson said.

Small satellites are right for tight fiscal times.