With small satellites growing in technical maturity and gaining wider acceptance, designers and users are trying to decide whether the best course for the future is to push the technological envelope with one-of-a-kind systems or adopt standards that will lead to reusable designs that will make small spacecraft even less expensive and provide faster access to space.

Whatever the path, interest in small satellites continues to grow as users look for faster and less expensive ways to get capable spacecraft into orbit.

For the last several years, high-level interest in small satellites has been aided by stable budgets, said Robert Meurer-, director of strategic business development and national security for Swales Aerospace in Beltsville, M d., who served as technical chairman of the 19th Annual Conference on Small Satellites held here August 8-11 and sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University .

Meurer said he is optimistic that the funding necessary to start “some real continuity” in the development of standardized buses is beginning to materialize, particularly in the tactical military satellite realm. “I’m hopeful we’re seeing the leading edge of that cycle,” he told Space News.

He noted that organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Air Force and the Naval Research Laboratory are all talking about production buys at some point in the future, not just single satellite programs.

“There were a lot of skeptics, and they have definitely changed their minds,” said R. Gilbert Moore, an early proponent of small satellites. Moore, who is the director of Project Starshine — a student-focused educational small satellite effort based in Monument, Colo., said small satellites have delivered on what many proponents have been advocating for years: They are a low-cost way of verifying technologies for use in other systems, he said.

“Electronic improvements have shrunk everything. It’s now to the point where you can compare today’s small satellite to yesteryear’s large satellite. They are equivalent. These aren’t toys anymore. These are indeed capable, robust, meaningful satellites,” Moore said .

One issue that still haunts the small satellite, or smallsat community, is the lack of affordable launch options to get their satellites into orbit. “When we have solved the transportation issue, this field is going to explode,” Moore predicted.

Papers presented during the four -day gathering reflected progress and areas of future evolution, such as:

– “Plug and Play” — Lego-like spacecraft assembled and integrated rapidly using simplified software that also can be debugged, calibrated and tested quickly, as well as accept late addition of new components and technologies;

– Formation flying of small satellites to showcase control and maneuvering technology, including evaluation of propellant us e;

– Autonomous docking, undocking and communications between modular spacecraft elements to permit reconfiguration in orbit;

– A new breed of low-cost small satellites capable of producing 2.5-meter resolution optical imagery that can be transmitted immediately to users near the imaged area.

Until the launch issue is resolved, though, Meurer said his personal opinion is that the small satellite arena is “still pretty much a toy box for technologists to play in. It is a seed that’s starting to grow … and I hope it germinates, gets strong and builds into something.”

Meurer said there also may be other uses for payloads and avionics developed for small satellites as a result of the military’s increasing interest in using airships and balloons at high altitudes, known as near space, where they can dwell for months at a time. Such systems will be able to make use of many of the data, power and processing systems developed for small satellites, he said.

The development of common system standards that some feel might lead to broad, mainstream utilization of small satellites was a major theme during the conference.

Standardization of such things as payloads, satellite platforms and launch vehicle interfaces are viewed by many in the smallsat community as the key to controlling cost and schedule.

Others, however, suggested that standardization at this juncture may impede progress and creativity within the small satellite community.

“Standardization tends to stifle innovation,” said Jim White, head of Colorado Satellite Services in Parker, Colo . “Small satellites have historically been all about innovation. So it’s not clear to me that the two fit together happily.”

White added, however, that in some instances, such as inter-bus communications, standardization may be of some value in that area. “If the smallsat community is going to attempt to reduce cost by standardizing anything, it ought to pick one or two existing standards and use those,” he said.

Nonetheless, White said that trying to standardize any kind of mechanical connections or interfaces would lead to very stifling results.

Similar in view is Todd Mosher, program chairman for the conference and an assistant professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at Utah State University. He considers more appropriate a “grassroots” effort, rather than a mandated set of standards, likening the approach to how Internet protocols evolved from an open source, de facto community of users.

“I think we need to think really hard about the right model to implement standards,” Mosher said. “We can’t really talk about standards until we even agree what standards are,” he added.

Both sides of the standardization coin were explored by Victor Matricardi, principal director of space test and experimentation for The Aerospace Corp. in Albuquerque, N.M. “We have to be realistic about what standardization can do,” he said .

Matricardi said that standardization is a possible way to lower systems engineering costs. He observed that multi-unit production of satellites can defuse a “rapidly rising spiral” of systems engineering costs, as well as prevent a satellite sponsor’s risk tolerance from spiraling downward.

But Matricardi noted that good standard interfaces are difficult to design. Furthermore, he said as soon as a standard is adopted, there is an inability to meet the “odd requirement.”

Comments: ldavid@space.com