Newswise — When you buy a mouse for your computer, removing the packaging is probably the hardest part of what comes next. Once you plug in the USB cable, you click on the mouse, and it just works. For it to "just work," of course, a great many things must happen in the background: Via the USB cable, the mouse's circuitry receives power, initializes, and is recognized by the computer as a valid device. Then the driver software takes over, identifying the device as a mouse and not, say, a printer or a keyboard. Finally, a rapid succession of electrical messsages traverses the cable, and these messages are translated into commands that then move the cursor smoothly across your computer screen. The fact that you don't need to know any of this to operate a mouse is by design: The mouse's computer chips and embedded software conceal the device's complexity.

The same plug-and-play approach can be applied to satellites, writes James Lyke, a researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory, in the August 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum. Traditional satellites are huge, complicated, and highly customized and can take many years and billions of dollars to build. By contrast, a satellite that has a modular architecture with standardized interfaces and components could be ready to launch within weeks or even days. The plug-and-play architecture designed by Lyke and his colleagues is now being used in a tactical battlefield satellite called the Modular Space Vehicle. The basic approach is also a perfect fit for spacecraft that carry an eclectic mix of instruments, such as weather and environmental monitoring satellites, and those that have an inherently modular design, such as communications satellites.

"Disruptive concepts are always a tough sell, particularly in the aerospace community," Lyke notes. "But if thre's a way to build well-engineered, capable spacecraft at a fraction of the cost and time, we need to give it a try. We have nothing to lose--and billions of dollars to save."

For a copy of the article ("Plug-and-Play Satellites," by James C. Lyke (IEEE Spectrum, August 2012) or to arrange an interview, contact: Nancy T. Hantman, 212-419-7561.