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Small, low-cost satellites are coming into their own as a niche industry serving commercial and government markets, building on the free development work provided by a generation of engineering students at places like California Polytechnic State University and Morehead State University in Kentucky.

It is now clear that smallsat technology is leapfrogging beyond the classroom. No longer just a hands-on teaching tool, miniature spacecraft are in serious development as weather monitors, Earth- and space-observation telescopes and a host of scientific probes.

“The genesis for a lot of the work has been in the universities, but we're now coming to a kind of a cusp, or a knee in the curve,” says Charles S. (Scott) MacGillivray, president of Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a two-year-old startup that is gaining serious traction in the market for cubesat components, engineering services and launch integration. “We can start saying 'hey, we can do real missions with these.'

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