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.”

Northrop Grumman flew its Mayflower cubesat piggyback last Dec. 8 on the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 that launched a Dragon capsule on its historic private orbit and recovery mission. The company, which teamed with Applied Minds LLC on the project, has since started offering cubesat services to its traditional customers, according to Wallis Laughrey, director of rapid response space at Northrop Grumman.

“That was a fully internally funded cubesat,” he says. “Our reasoning for doing it was to look at ways we could take some technological capabilities that are applicable to our product lines, both from a spacecraft bus or from a payloads perspective, and find ways to get them space-qualified quickly. Now, obviously those are kind of small, but specifically in support of our civil customers as well as in support of our DOD customers and anything else that we had as we look down the future at what our road map is.”

The company’s small investment also served an educational role for some of its junior engineers, who had an opportunity to build and fly a spacecraft quickly, and even for summer interns from nearby colleges.

At Cal Poly, the early work on cubesat standards has evolved into a very active program in the school of engineering, and a contract worth as much as $5 million from NASA to provide launch-dispenser services to cubesats funded by the U.S. space agency.

NASA-backed cubesat students got a hard look at the downside of the technology last year when a Taurus XL launch vehicle carrying the agency’s Glory satellite failed to reach orbit because its fairing did not separate. Joining the Earth-observation spacecraft on the floor of the Pacific were cubesats built by Montana State University, the University of Colorado and the Kentucky Space consortium of universities in that state.

But just as Northrop Grumman flew its cubesat on a SpaceX Falcon 9, the number of launch opportunities for small secondary payloads is growing as launch service providers angle for new business. SpaceX complicated its plans to fly its first mission to the International Space Station by requesting permission to include a pair of Orbcomm smallsats on the flights, and Cal Poly is currently preparing cubesats for launch on a Delta II, Falcon 9 and a National Reconnaissance Office launch, according to Justin Foley, a Cal Poly engineering alumnus who is now the program administrator for cubesat activities at the school.

New opportunities are arising all the time. Earlier this month, Spaceflight Inc., a startup spin-off of Andrews Space, announced plans to loft four cubesats on the first flight of the Taurus II vehicle that Orbital Sciences Corp. is developing to deliver cargo to the ISS. That flight from the commercial spaceport on Wallops Island, Va., is expected early in 2012.