Our helpmates in orbit

Several years back, the word "coordinates" began gaining currency in certain circles as shorthand for where one could be reached at any given time.

Today, a journalist on the move, for example, may pepper his editor with his changing "coordinates."

The term snaps with military precision, evoking images of "smart bombs" targeted at tiny caves in Tora Bora. And the high-tech word suits the times in another way: Our coordinates today often take the form of e-mail addresses, and of fax, cellphone, and pager numbers.

Yet increasingly, the term is being more literally applied. Global positioning systems place us, precisely, in the cross hairs of latitude and longitude. That can be useful if you're lost in the woods.

But now, everyday consumers are gaining access to a broadening range of devices that let us "talk" with satellites. Signals link satellites to radio, telephone, the Internet, and photo services.

The result is a rush hour in space. Tens of thousands of satellites, most deployed to serve commercial purposes, circle the earth.

Satellite-linked tools - including good old TV dishes - keep getting smaller and more powerful, mirroring the 1980s evolution of cellphones. (Dishes have long been found outside the wealthy West, too. Post-Taliban Afghans now put up models made from flattened cans.)

In the US, newer services have kinks. (In-car satellite navigation gets sketchy among city buildings or mountainous terrain, places where you might need it most.)

But more-established ones are flexing their advantages. With the cost of "basic cable" television up 36 percent since 1996 and set to rise further, satellite TV costs, for one, are looking very competitive.

The satellites have our numbers.

Reach us at work@csps.com

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