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Cubesats — the small, cheap spacecraft popular with engineering students due to their hands-on appeal as teaching tools — are attracting attention beyond the academy as their capabilities grow and launch opportunities proliferate.

“It really is a technology; it’s not simply a cheap platform,” says Mason Peck, director of the Space Systems Design Studio at Cornell University. “There’s a lot more going on than that.”

Peck has been selected to be NASA’s chief technologist in January, and stresses that until then he speaks as an engineering professor at Cornell. But in that role he has seen the nascent cubesat industry mature to the point that commercial companies are offering cubesat components, allowing students to be as creative as they might once have been with a pile of Lego building-block toys.

“As long as you conform to the specification, you can put whatever you want in there,” Peck says. “. . . Nowadays you can buy structure, the flight computer, radios, even GPS components, essentially off the shelf.”

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