Blackjack Program of DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency
National Security Space (NSS) assets, critical to U.S. warfighting capabilities, traditionally reside in geosynchronous orbit to deliver persistent overhead access to any point on the globe. In the increasingly contested space environment, these exquisite, costly, and monolithic systems have become vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed. DARPA’s Blackjack program aims to develop and demonstrate the critical elements for a global high-speed network in low Earth orbit (LEO) that provides the Department of Defense with highly connected, resilient, and persistent coverage. 1)
Blackjack seeks to incorporate commercial sector advances in LEO, including design of LEO constellations intended for broadband internet service, of which the design and manufacturing could offer economies of scale previously unavailable. DARPA is interested in capitalizing on these advances to demonstrate military utility, emphasizing a commoditized bus and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades.
The key program objectives are:
• Develop payload and mission-level autonomy software and demonstrate autonomous orbital operations including on-orbit distributed decision processors.
• Develop and implement advanced commercial manufacturing for military payloads and the spacecraft bus.
• Demonstrate payloads in LEO to augment NSS assets. The driver will be to show LEO performance that is on par with current systems in geosynchronous orbit with the spacecraft combined bus, payload(s), and launch costs under $6 million per orbital node while the payloads meet size, weight, and power constraints of the commercial bus.
May 2020: In partnership with the USSF (U.S. Space Force) and SDA (Space Development Agency), DARPA’s Blackjack program is targeting flights to low-Earth orbit (LEO) later this year and 2021. Using a series of small risk reduction satellites, the program aims to demonstrate advanced technology for satellite constellation autonomy and space mesh networks. Blackjack seeks to develop and validate critical elements of global high-speed autonomous networks in LEO, proving a capability that could provide the Department of Defense with highly connected, resilient, and persistent overhead coverage. 2)
Figure 1: Artist's rendition of the Blackjack concept (image credit: DARPA)
The upcoming demonstration flights are all planned as rideshares, catching a ride to LEO on a launch with other missions. The first demonstration, Mandrake 1, is a CubeSat that will carry supercomputer processing chips. Mandrake 2 is a pair of small satellites that will carry optical inter-satellite links for broadband data. These could form the basis of future optically meshed computer networks in LEO.
The program also is targeting a risk reduction payload called Wildcard, a software-defined radio that will experiment with links from LEO to tactical radios. A data fusion experiment with the ability to host advanced third party algorithms, known as massless payloads, is intended for an upcoming Loft Orbital mission.
“It's important that we get the design right,” says Paul “Rusty” Thomas, the program manager for Blackjack. “We focused first on buses and payloads, then the autonomous mission management system, which we call Pit Boss. We anticipate we'll begin integrating the first two military payloads next summer with launch via rideshare in late 2021, followed by the remainder of the Blackjack demonstration sub-constellation in 2022.”
Blackjack aims to demonstrate sensors that are low in size, weight, and power, and that can be mass produced to fit on many different buses from many different providers, for less than $2 million per payload.
The agency is evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies, and Telesat, all of which have progressed through preliminary design review. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. The program recently completed preliminary design review for Pit Boss, selecting SEAKR as the primary performer for the on-orbit autonomy system. The agency also awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin as the satellite integrator.
Several sensor payloads are under consideration for the Blackjack demonstration sub-constellation, including overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) from Collins Aerospace and Raytheon; radio frequency systems from Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, and Systems & Technology Research; position, navigation, and timing from Northrop Grumman; optical inter-satellite links from SA Photonics; and electro-optical/infrared from L3Harris. The program also recently completed a Small Business Innovation Research contract with Augustus Aerospace to work on an Army Space and Missile Defense Command-related payload.
Over the next few months, the program will run simulations to test payloads in virtual constellations of all types of missions. The goal is to show interoperability between the commoditized buses and the various payloads being considered.
We need to show the constellations can move the right amount of data and support the data fusion and command and control we want from Pit Boss,” Thomas said. “From there, we will start building the actual hardware. By late next spring, we will have hardware and then spend next summer focused on satellite-level qualification for launch readiness in late 2021.”
Development and mission status of the Blackjack Program
• July 12, 2021: DARPA has deployed two satellites as part of the SpaceX Transporter-2 launch. According to DARPA, both Mandrake 2 spacecraft, Able and Baker, are functioning and progressing through checkout and commissioning. 3)
- Conceived as an early risk-reduction flight for DARPA’s Blackjack program, the Mandrake 2 mission will aim to prove out advanced laser communications technologies for a broad government stakeholder team that includes DARPA, Space Development Agency (SDA), Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV), and Office of the Secretary of Defense’s (OSD) Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) office.
- The launch of Mandrake 2 represents the culmination of a rapid design and development effort by a large team of industry performers led by SEAKR Engineering, as the prime contractor. According to officials, Astro Digital built the satellite buses for Mandrake 2. Advanced Solutions (ASI) wrote the Mandrake 2 flight software and is supporting mission operations. Maverick Space Systems performed integration and test analysis, as well as launch integration services.
- Lockheed Martin provided integration support and launch procurement. SA Photonics developed the optical inter-satellite link (OISL) hardware demonstrated as part of the Mandrake 2 mission, and SpaceX provided launch services as part of its SmallSat Rideshare Program.
Figure 2: Two Mandrake 2 satellites deployed under DARPA's Blackjack Program (image credit: DARPA)
• June 30, 2021: The Space Development Agency today announced the successful launch of its first two microsatellite missions, Mandrake II and Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System (LINCS) and the Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed (POET) payload, on June 30 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. 4)
- The launch, supported by SpaceX’s Transporter-2, an all-rideshare Falcon 9 mission, carried aboard SDA’s first two sets of experimental satellites, designed and built with government and industry partners, to gather data on optical communication terminal (OCT) performance in low-Earth orbit (LEO), along with the POET payload to demonstrate on-orbit data fusion, proving out core capabilities required for SDA’s future development efforts.
- Note: the two Mandrake-2 satellites — originally intended to launch on Transporter-1 rideshare mission of SpaceX (in January 2021) before being damaged in prelaunch processing — feature optical crosslinks and will be used to test technologies for future low Earth orbit military satellite.
- Optical links between space, air, and ground assets offer significantly higher data rates and lower latency when compared to conventional radio frequency links, and demonstrate a pathway of getting real-time data to warfighter.
Figure 3: A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off June 30 on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission, with 88 satellites on board (image credit: SpaceX webcast) 5)
- Once on-orbit, POET will demonstrate integration of a third-party multiple intelligence (multi-INT) data fusion software application in a LEO satellite modular and upgradeable mission software suite running in an edge-processor that is representative of what is planned for the National Defense Space Architecture’s (NDSA) Tranche 0 constellation.
- “SDA is relying on OCTs to get massive amounts of data off of sensors and into warfighters' hands faster than has ever been possible,” said Derek Tournear, SDA director. “Today’s missions will provide real-world data that we can use to verify our engineering assumptions and space-qualify a significant emerging technology.” He continued, “The lessons learned from on-orbit experiments and tests will directly impact future SDA missions, in line with our spiral development concept.”
- On Mandrake II, SDA is working with government partners DARPA and AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) to evaluate the pointing, acquisition, and tracking algorithms that allow for OCTs to establish and maintain high-speed communication links. The mission will also characterize data transfer rates and optical link performance between space vehicles in LEO and from space to ground. Immediately after separation from the launch vehicle, the pair of Mandrake II space vehicles will gradually drift apart on orbit, allowing for tests at increasing ranges up to 2,400 kilometers.
- For the LINCS mission, SDA teamed with General Atomics (GA) to collect the same general data as the Mandrake II mission with OCTs designed and manufactured by GA that offer increased performance. SDA and GA will also take this technology a step further by demonstrating space-to-air optical links between a LINCS space vehicle and a specially developed OCT pod for the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. In addition to increasing bandwidth, optical links are also more difficult to detect and disrupt than traditional communication links, enhancing communication in less- and non-permissive environments.
- The POET program will provide for an on-orbit Custody Layer data fusion application that will reside within an overarching Battle Management Command, Control, and Communications (BMC3) software system developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA’s) Blackjack Pit Boss processor. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II program includes developing a Custody layer application and software development kit using the Scientific Systems Company, Inc. (SSCI) collaborative mission autonomy software suite, (b) ground testing on a CFC-400 satellite processor, (c) host satellite integration, launch and checkout support; and (d) enables an initial flight demonstration of on-orbit multi-INT data fusion onboard Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 microsatellite.
- SDA’s work to push the boundaries of OCT capabilities will directly impact warfighter readiness by disrupting and shortening the traditional sensor-to-shooter and sensor-to-weapon kill chain. With more data traveling faster than ever, leaders will have the tools to react to current and emerging threats with greater speed and assurance. As SDA continues to develop the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA), smaller-scale development efforts like those launched during this mission will play a key role in ensuring that new technology is effectively implemented with each new tranche, solidifying the nation’s continued superiority in the space domain.
- SDA recognizes the importance of continued partnership with government and industry to develop and demonstrate technologies to enhance the performance and resilience of the NDSA.
• May 6, 2021: DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 million contract to provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) payloads for the Blackjack program. 6)
- Blackjack is a DARPA project to demonstrate the military utility of small satellites in low Earth orbit to provide communications, missile warning and PNT. Northrop Grumman’s contract was awarded April 28, according to sam.gov.
- The company will supply two payloads that broadcast a new signal that is not dependent on the Global Positioning System.
- “Northrop Grumman’s software-defined PNT technology will offer military users an agile new signal from low Earth orbit that is not dependent on existing satellite navigation systems,” Nicholas Paraskevopoulos, the company’s chief technology officer and sector vice president of emerging capabilities development, said May 6 in a statement.
- The company develops PNT systems at facilities in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, and Woodland Hills, California.
- Paraskevopoulos said “assured PNT is needed not only for traditional missions like force projection and joint operations, but also for emerging autonomous and distributed missions. We are demonstrating what’s possible from a highly connected, resilient and persistent LEO constellation.”
Figure 4: Artist rendering of Blackjack PNT satellites (image credit: Northrop Grumman)
- This is Northrop Grumman’s first Blackjack award. DARPA is assembling a growing team of suppliers for Blackjack with a goal to start launching demonstration satellites in 2022. Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat provide satellite buses. Raytheon is the supplier of missile-warning payloads. SEAKR Engineering is developing the Pit Boss autonomous computing system. Lockheed Martin is the satellite integrator.
• April 22, 2021: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency increased Lockheed Martin’s contract for satellite integration work for the Blackjack program by $27.3 million, the agency announced April 22. - Lockheed Martin will do the assembly and integration of Blackjack satellite buses, payloads and the Pit Boss data processor. 7)
- DARPA a year ago selected Lockheed Martin as the satellite integrator for Blackjack, a project to demonstrate a network of small satellites in low Earth orbit for military communications, missile warning and navigation.
- The company had previously received a $13.1 million contract for Blackjack satellite integration work. The $27.3 million modification for Phase 2 of the program brings the total value of the contract to $40.4 million.
- DARPA has ordered 10 buses so far from Blue Canyon Technologies. Raytheon Technologies is providing missile warning infrared sensors. The agency last month awarded SEAKR Engineering a $60.4 million contract to develop the Pit Boss data processing system for satellites to operate autonomously.
- Julie Pecson, Lockheed Martin’s Blackjack program director, said the first four spacecraft are scheduled to launch in June 2022.
- “Lockheed Martin looks forward to the continued partnership with DARPA and the Blackjack performers to develop this transformational program,” Pecson said in a statement to SpaceNews.
- “This effort demonstrates Lockheed Martin’s approach to rapid satellite integration and validates DARPA’s ambitious program goals for Blackjack,” Pecson said.
Figure 5: DARPA's Blackjack constellation is projected to have as many as 20 satellites (image credit: DARPA)
• February 12, 2021: The Pentagon’s space agency this year will launch a series of experiments — including satellites with laser links and missile-tracking sensors — as it prepares to begin deploying a network of satellites in low-Earth orbit in 2022. 8)
One of those experiments is Mandrake 2 — a pair of small spacecraft equipped with optical crosslinks that was scheduled to launch on 24 Jan. 2021 on SpaceX’s massive rideshare Transporter-1. The satellites were accidentally damaged during payload processing and didn’t make the launch. They are now being repaired and will fly to orbit this summer on SpaceX’s next rideshare mission Transporter-2, said Derek Tournear, director of the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency.
Figure 6: The Mandrake 2 experiment is a pair of small spacecraft equipped with optical crosslinks funded by the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the SDA (Space Development Agency) and AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory), image credit: SDA
• January 26, 2021: Of significant interest to the military are optical inter-satellite links that allow satellites to pass massive amounts of data to other satellites and to ground stations. 9)
- Among the 143 satellites that flew to orbit Jan. 24 on SpaceX’s record-breaking rideshare were technology demonstrations and payloads of interest to the U.S. military, including satellite components, in-space laser communications and remote sensing.
- Blue Canyon Technologies deployed new satellite components it plans to incorporate in Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency satellites. Now owned by Raytheon, Blue Canyon is producing spacecraft for DARPA’s Blackjack low-Earth orbit constellation. The company’s CEO George Stafford said these new components include attitude control systems and reaction wheels intended to improve the performance of satellites.
- Other smallsats that flew on SpaceX’s Transporter-1 were laser communications payloads — known as optical inter-satellite links — that allow satellites to pass massive amounts of data to other satellites and to ground stations. Germany’s Tesat-Spacecom sent to orbit a laser communications terminal on DLR's mission of PIXL-1, Tesat claims the terminal is the smallest in the industry, weighing less than a pound.
- Tesat-Spacecom spokesman Matthias Motzigemba told SpaceNews the company plans to test the optical communications payload for up to two years and conduct experiments aimed at building a global network of space and ground nodes.
Figure 7: SpaceX on Jan. 24, 2021, launched the Transporter-1 rideshare mission from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida (image credit: SpaceX)
- Motzigemba said he could not disclose the customers for these terminals but said Tesat currently supplies optical inter-satellite links to U.S. companies building low-Earth orbit constellations.
- The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency is especially interested in lightweight laser communications terminals for the fleet of LEO satellites it plans to deploy over the next few years. DARPA and SDA were hoping to launch two optical inter-satellite link CubeSats on Transporter-1 but the satellites were accidentally damaged at the payload processing facility.
- SDA Director Derek Tournear commented in a social media post that losing those two satellites was “painful” and that Transporter-1 would have had 145 satellites on board if the two laser comms payloads had made it.
- SpaceX in this mission flew 10 of its own Starlink internet satellites equipped with laser links. The U.S. military plans to use Starlink to connect airplanes and other platforms, and optical inter-satellite links are preferred because they are more cyber secure than traditional radio-frequency communications.
- The largest share of smallsats in Transporter-1 were imaging satellites from Planet as well as radar imaging satellites from Capella Space and ICEYE, and radio-frequency mapping satellites from HawkEye 360. These and other companies are expanding their fleets as the Pentagon and the intelligence community plan to increase use of commercial remote sensing services.
• January 6, 2021: SEAKR® Engineering, Inc. (SEAKR) of Centennial, CO, is pleased to announce it realized on-orbit technology demonstration of Pit Boss supercomputing processing hardware in 9 months as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Blackjack Program. Pit Boss is an autonomous, collaborative, distributed space-based enterprise designed to self-task, process, and distribute tactically relevant information to manned and unmanned subscribers. 10)
- As Pit Boss prime, SEAKR supports the Blackjack program with two risk reduction demonstration flights as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) rideshares. The first demonstration, Mandrake 1, a CubeSat, validates key Pit Boss hardware and chip level technologies prior to full production. The experimental orbital platform includes a digital twin and provides ‘real-time’ efficacy feedback on LEO radiation mitigations and processor performance. The single satellite system launch supports early evaluation and characterization for risk reduction in technology development. The second demonstration, Mandrake 2, aims to advance laser communications between satellites and to ground or airborne assets with Blackjack constellation laser terminals.
- DARPA’s Blackjack program focuses on integrating commercial satellite technologies into a constellation of affordable, small, secure, and resilient military satellites. Mandrake efforts combine mission development and management services, integration coordination, as well as mission operations, data reduction and processor prototype development. The Mandrake program supports the Blackjack program’s mission by aiming to reduce risk and validating key technologies and capabilities to expand operational fidelity.
- SEAKR’s processing developments for DARPA’s blackjack program leverages four generations of architectural capability supporting the full spectrum of payload processing performance requirements, with a high level of on-orbit reconfigurable processing capability. Pulling from its established heritage capabilities, strength in Radio Frequency (RF) communications, along with the continuous product and architectural advancement, SEAKR continues to define leading edge, state-of-practice processing systems in partnership with government, civil, and commercial entities. SEAKR’s previous study and prototype advancements have successfully contributed to our customer’s ability to solve complex challenges imperative in advancing capability to meet today’s most daunting mission objectives. Key technologies being deployed and leveraged include: Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC) and Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) technologies, Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) based processing technologies, and Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) based processing technologies.
Figure 8: SEAKR demonstrates DARPA PitBoss hardware on-orbit in 9 months (image credit: SEAKR)
• December 14, 2020: The satellites Blue Canyon developed for DARPA — based on the company's commercial X-SAT bus — passed a critical design review. 11)
- DARPA plans to deploy up to 20 spacecraft in low-Earth orbit that will be connected by optical inter-satellite links and provide communications, missile tracking and navigation services.
- In July 2020, Blue Canyon won a $14.1 million contract to manufacture four satellites, with options worth $99 million for up to 20 satellites.
- The company is customizing its commercial X-SAT bus for the Blackjack program and is using Orbion Space Technology’s electric propulsion. The satellite passed a design critical design review conducted at Blue Canyon’s factory in Lafayette, Colorado. The reviews were done both virtually and in person with appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions, the company said.
- After clearing this review, Blue Canyon can start producing the first two flight buses to be delivered to DARPA for payload integration in August 2021.
- Blue Canyon Technologies is in the process of being acquired by Raytheon Technologies. The transaction is expected to close by early 2021, pending regulatory approvals. Blue Canyon will be merged into Raytheon Intelligence & Space, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
Figure 9: Blue Canyon Technologies is using the 150 kg X-SAT minisatellite bus for DARPA's Blackjack program (image credit: Blue Canyon Technologies)
• October 14, 2020: Telesat U.S. Services, LLC of Arlington, VA, a wholly owned subsidiary of leading global satellite operator Telesat, has been awarded a contract by DARPA for the development and in-orbit demonstration of commercial low-Earth-orbit (LEO) spacecraft buses in a LEO constellation network with robust low-latency communications features as part of DARPA’s Blackjack program. Following Telesat’s initial 2018 contract for system engineering and interface definition under the Blackjack Phase 1 program, Telesat U.S. Services will develop and demonstrate the Blackjack Phase 2/3 Track B technology, including in-orbit testing the capabilities of Optical Inter-Satellite Links (OISLs). 12)
- As part of Phase 2, Telesat U.S. Services will deliver two spacecraft buses to DARPA in less than one year for a “risk reduction” flight to test OISL communications with government payloads in orbit and to demonstrate OISL interoperability with different hardware. The Phase 2 base contract represents an $18.3 million program for Telesat U.S. Services. Subsequently, additional Telesat LEO spacecraft may be procured to fully populate the Blackjack constellation, which represents a total contract value of up to $175.6 million if all options are exercised.
- “This next phase of the Blackjack program will showcase the powerful capabilities that commercial LEO networks bring to a hybrid architecture for government space communications,” said Don Brown, General Manager, Telesat U.S. Services. “With OISLs and advanced networking native to the Telesat LEO constellation architecture, we are uniquely positioned to deliver interoperable mesh connectivity between government and commercial constellations. We look forward to continuing our work with DARPA to prove out the game-changing nature of hybrid commercial-government networks.”
- The Blackjack program is a demonstration of LEO satellites in hybrid commercial-government constellations offering highly resilient space systems, global persistence, low latency communications and rapid technology refresh. These enabling objectives will be accomplished by leveraging commercial space technologies including commoditized spacecraft buses, ground infrastructure and user segments at unprecedented low costs. The Telesat LEO constellation includes a number of distinctive features that align with the Blackjack program vision, including spacecraft buses with native OISL capability, mesh networking, onboard processing, and a full global network architecture backed by global priority spectrum allocations.
• June 12, 2020: The contract awarded to Raytheon is for Overhead Persistent Infrared sensor payloads. 13)
- Raytheon received a $37.4 million contract from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for space-based early warning sensors for the Blackjack program, the agency announced June 12.
Figure 10: Artist rendering of the infrared early warning sensors (image credit: Raytheon)
- Blackjack is a program to demonstrate the utility of a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit for military communications and overhead coverage.
- The contract awarded to Raytheon is for Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) payloads. The company has to produce and deliver by April 2023 two space-flight ready OPIR payloads that can be integrated with multiple Blackjack buses and with the Pit Boss system.
- Pit Boss is an artificial intelligence on-board processor for autonomous operations being developed by SEAKR.
- Raytheon is developing space-based early warning sensors for the U.S. Space Force under the Next-Generation OPIR program.
- DARPA announced other Blackjack contracts earlier this week as the agency prepares to start launching satellites later this year or in early 2021.
• May 11, 2020: Three payloads will fly to low Earth orbit in late 2020 and early 2021 to start building an optically meshed network. 14)
- DARPA plans to launch the first experimental satellites of the Blackjack program in late 2020 and early 2021, the agency said May 11.
- DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office started the Blackjack program in 2018 to show the military utility of low Earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of low-cost satellites.
- As many as 20 satellites will be launched by 2022.
- The first demonstration, Mandrake 1, is a CubeSat that will carry supercomputer processing chips. The second, Mandrake 2, is a pair of small satellites that will carry optical inter-satellite links for broadband data. DARPA says these could form the basis of future optically meshed networks in LEO.
- A third payload scheduled to launch is called Wildcard, a software-defined radio that will experiment with links from LEO to tactical radios.
- The launch dates and vehicles have not yet been decided.
- Blackjack program manager Paul “Rusty” Thomas said Mandrake 1 and 2 will fly in separate launches, and there’s a possibility that Mandrake 2 and Wildcard could be on the same launch. “The program will firm up the dates once there is a clearer picture of how COVID-19 could affect upcoming launch schedules,” Thomas said in a statement.
Figure 11: Paul ‘Rusty’ Thomas, Blackjack program manager (image credit: DARPA)
- One of the goals of the Blackjack program is to build satellites at lower cost than traditional military spacecraft by using sensors that can be mass produced to fit on many different buses from different providers for less than $2 million per payload.
- “We focused first on buses and payloads, then the autonomous mission management system, which we call Pit Boss,” said Thomas. The first two military payloads will be integrated and launched in mid to late 2021, and the remainder of the constellation in 2022.
- “We need to show the constellations can move the right amount of data and support the data fusion and command and control we want from Pit Boss,” Thomas said. “From there, we will start building the actual hardware. By late next spring, we will have hardware and then spend next summer focused on satellite-level qualification for launch readiness in late 2021.”
- DARPA is evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat, all of which have cleared a preliminary design review. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. SEAKR is the prime contractor for the Pit Boss on-orbit autonomy system. The agency also awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin as the satellite integrator.
- Several sensor payloads are under consideration, including overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) from Collins Aerospace and Raytheon; radio frequency systems from Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, and Systems & Technology Research; position, navigation, and timing from Northrop Grumman; optical inter-satellite links from SA Photonics; and electro-optical infrared from L3Harris.
- The program recently awarded a Small Business Innovation Research contract to Augustus Aerospace to work on an Army Space and Missile Defense Command payload.
• April 27, 2020: Lockheed Martin has received a $5.8 million contract from DARPA for the first phase of satellite integration on the Blackjack program, the company announced Monday. The program looks to leverage commercial advances in Low-Earth Orbit to develop and demonstrate the critical elements for a global high-speed network in LEO for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). 15)
- At this stage, Lockheed Martin will define and manage interfaces between Blackjack’s bus, payload and Pit Boss — its autonomous, space-based command and data processor. The contract also includes testbed validation of internal and external vehicle interfaces. Future phases of Blackjack are expected to include build, test, and launch of a demonstration constellation in 2021-2022.
- “Lockheed Martin has built and integrated a variety of payload types and sizes for every type of mission and we bring all of that experience to the Blackjack program,” said Sarah Reeves, Lockheed Martin vice president of Missile Defense Programs. “This is an exciting new approach to plug-n-play design for LEO and we are up for the challenge.”
• January 8, 2020: The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency foresaw the commercial space boom and recognized an opportunity. Ventures flush with private capital are gearing up to build large constellations of small satellites in low Earth orbit to provide low-latency communications at competitive prices. DARPA was intrigued by what satellite mass production could mean for military space programs. 16)
- It was that thinking that drove DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office in 2018 to start Blackjack, an “architecture demonstration” to test the military utility of LEO constellations and mesh networks of low-cost satellites.
- Blackjack’s program manager, Paul “Rusty” Thomas, joined DARPA in 2017 after an extensive career running technology and space programs at SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Iridium’s original satellite manufacturer Motorola.
- In an interview with SpaceNews, Thomas said Blackjack has generated excitement because of its potential to disrupt the traditional approaches for building constellations. Now the pressure is on to deliver on its stated goal: deploy 20 satellites by 2022 to demonstrate that LEO systems can be a more resilient and affordable alternative to the Defense Department’s exquisite and costly geosynchronous satellites.
What have been Blackjack’s major accomplishments so far?
- We’ve assembled a great team of industry partners. DARPA to date has selected 15 vendors to supply satellite buses, payloads and Pit Boss, an avionics box and computing node mounted on each Blackjack satellite that provides mission level autonomy. With Pit Boss, the goal is to move a huge amount of processing power to space which will allow us to deliver critical data on short timelines to military users.
Who are the 15 vendors currently working on the program?
- We will be evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. None of the companies have produced hardware for Blackjack to this point, though all buses have progressed through a preliminary design review. The payload suppliers are Collins Aerospace, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, SA Photonics, Airbus, Systems & Technology Research, Sky Quantum and L3Harris. We selected Scientific Systems Company, SEAKR Engineering and BAE Systems to develop Pit Boss concepts. We expect to select a new vendor soon to do satellite integration.
Is DARPA buying commercial buses off the line, or do companies have to make modifications to accommodate military payloads?
- Nobody is building a production line of commoditized buses that can handle all kinds of military payloads. Airbus has a wonderful production line in Florida we visited. They’re going to start producing 30 satellites a month for OneWeb. But you can’t take one off the end of the line and bolt a military payload to it. They are working with us on how they would take out some of the commercial comms elements so we have more size, weight and power available for the military payload. We will take a commoditized bus as close as we can and keep modifications to a minimum.
Have you started integrating buses with payloads?
- That’s the next phase we’ll be starting soon. Industry proposals for the satellite integration work are being evaluated and we’re currently in source selection. We’ll be taking various types of payloads — for communications, missile defense, PNT [positioning, navigation, timing] and ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] — and evaluate how each payload could fly without having to redesign the bus. We want buses that will not require redesign when a new payload shows up, which gets us to the rapid integration model we’re going after. We will likely want a small bus for a dedicated mission, and also a medium or larger bus where we can put two or three payloads and host a Pit Boss data processor.
What is the timeline to complete satellite integration and begin the deployment phase?
- First we have to decide what payloads will fly on what satellites. We haven’t completed the design reviews yet. We have great options going forward into the next phase. The goal is to have hardware ready in late 2020 so we can decide what will fly. Even though we selected nine payload providers, we won’t fly nine payloads. We’ll do a selection based on military utility and the potential to transition the technology to partners in the Air Force and the Army that are interested in proliferated LEO capabilities. The plan is to launch the first two satellites in 2021 to begin testing. We also have to develop a concept of operations. The final piece will be the deployment of 18 additional satellites. We may deploy two constellations of 10 in different orbits.
- I want to get two satellites up early to make sure I retire the risk of the commercial buses with military payloads, make sure everything is working, hardware-wise, radiation-wise, make sure that I don’t have a blind sensor for instance. Then we will launch 18 more in 2022 to get 20 satellites.
When will you select launch providers?
- Our intent is to release a Broad Area Announcement for launch services in the near future. We’ll take as close to a commercial approach as we can. We are open to both dedicated launch and rideshare. Our satellites are not CubeSats but they’re not huge. Buses range from well over 100 kilograms to several hundred kilograms. For the first two satellites we might go with a rideshare, but we may decide to buy a dedicated rocket for the remaining 18 satellites. The first two may go to a different inclination than optimal, but that’s OK. This is just a demo of a future operational capability.
You mentioned the Air Force and the Army are partners in the Blackjack program. What about the Space Development Agency?
- They are all transition partners. The Air Force and the Army will help move Blackjack technologies into operational systems. SDA is planning to develop space layers for communications and tracking. We are demonstrating key elements of those. I think SDA is going to take off and run with many of those pieces. How that is done is beyond my scope.
DARPA requested $25 million for Blackjack for 2020. The House Armed Services Committee recommended a $20 million increase above the request. Why do you think Congress has shown such enthusiasm for the program?
- I can’t comment on funding. Since we started Blackjack, the question that gets asked the most is what problem are we trying to solve. What we are doing is a different space architecture with a reduced integration timeline so we can deploy capabilities quickly. The current military ecosystem relies on exquisite GEO satellites. They perform exceptionally well but come with high cost and lengthy development cycles. The challenge is to keep pace with evolving threats. Our current systems are the targets of weapons that cost far less than the satellites. Our approach is to show we can build constellations that allow for one- or two-year refresh cycles using spacecraft that cost less than $10 million apiece, including launch. Blackjack is the first step in developing that vision.
Who came up with the name ‘Blackjack’?
- I didn’t name the program. A member of the front office staff for the Tactical Technology Office compared proliferated LEO to the way surveillance domes in a casino ceiling create a mesh network to alert the casino managers to bad actors and provide constant deterrence. After I came aboard, I created Pit Boss, the autonomous control element in Blackjack, as it plays a similar role to a pit boss in a casino by exerting command and control over a given zone.
• November 21, 2019: Scientific Systems Company, Inc. (SSCI) of Woburn, MA, has been awarded a DARPA prime contract to begin development of the Pit Boss mission system for the Blackjack satellite constellation. The DARPA Blackjack program aims to demonstrate the capabilities of a proliferated low Earth orbit (P-LEO) system through a variety of on-orbit experiments using 20 low-cost small satellites, each carrying payloads relevant to select military missions. Pit Boss is the computing and encryption hardware and modular software element of Blackjack that is envisioned to enable autonomous on-orbit mission tasking, sensor collection, on-board processing and exploitation, and dissemination via a worldwide digital network, all at mission speed. The Pit Boss ground segment will be designed to be relatively simple compared to those in use today. It should provide the powerful ability of large numbers of military users – on the ground, in the air, or at sea – to request specific payload data services from the constellation with the ease of a typical internet commercial sales transaction. Pit Boss further should provide an open and cyber-resilient platform architecture that allows the flexible and rapid integration of new mission payloads and autonomy software applications onto a commoditized small satellite bus of choice. 17)
- SSCI leads an expert development team that includes Oxford Systems, Emergent Space Technologies, Orbit Logic, Raytheon BBN Technologies, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, DZYNE, Kitware, Leaf Labs, Dornerworks, and Innoflight. SSCI Vice President of Research and Development, Dr. Owen Brown, provides insight into the company’s approach to solve this challenging problem: “We are leveraging our Collaborative Mission Autonomy (CMA) software platform for Pit Boss. CMA brings to the Space Domain what our national security space users need: flexibility, resiliency, and a significant increase in both acquisition and operational responsiveness. This is the same software platform we have utilized for solving similar problems for distributed autonomy, at scale, in the Maritime and Air Domains. We look forward to demonstrating how CMA in space can radically improve how warfighters get the information they need when they need it.” Raman Mehra, the CEO of SSCI adds, “This is a significant award in the history of SSCI. We are excited to be given the chance to create a capability that will be of great benefit to our country’s national security. I’m proud of our Pit Boss team, which represents the ecosystem of developers required to implement, sustain, and evolve space-based capabilities at a time constant required to stay ahead of our adversaries.”
• January 14, 2019: Airbus Defense and Space Inc. has been awarded a contract from the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to develop a satellite bus in support of the Blackjack program. 18)
- DARPA describes the Blackjack program as an architecture demonstration intending to show the military utility of global low-earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight and cost. DARPA wants to buy commercial satellite buses and pair them with military sensors and payloads. The bus drives each satellite by generating power, controlling attitude, providing propulsion, transmitting spacecraft telemetry, and providing general payload accommodation including mounting locations for the military sensors.
- “Airbus has previously co-invested hundreds of millions of dollars in high-rate manufacturing technology and supply chain logistics to build large constellations of small satellites,” said Tim Deaver, Director of US Space Programs at Airbus Defense and Space, Inc. “Airbus is committed to growing manufacturing capability in the US and our government customers can leverage this commercial capability to develop low-earth orbit constellations to complement large existing systems.”
- This contract positions Airbus Defense and Space, Inc., of Herndon, Va., and its strategic joint venture partner, OneWeb Satellites, of Exploration Park, Fl., as the ideal service providers for Blackjack.
- High production rates and design-to-cost management techniques enable OneWeb Satellites to offer low cost constellation solutions for the U.S. government and current customers. Constellations of inexpensive satellites permit wide scale disaggregated architectures enhancing survivability across many different mission areas.
- OneWeb Satellites is pioneering new value propositions in space. They are leading the design and manufacturing of ultra-high performing satellites at high-volumes.
- “We have created a game changer with our overall design, supply chain and production system,” said Tony Gingiss, CEO, OneWeb Satellites. “Our team is transforming the space industry and we are in the midst of demonstrating we can deliver on our promises.”
- OneWeb Satellites brings to bear capabilities which dramatically lower the cost and shorten acquisition timelines for customers thanks to a modular design and agile serial production of satellites.
- The OneWeb Satellites satellite manufacturing facility in Florida is the latest step in Airbus’ continued and long-standing commitment to growth in U.S. manufacturing, job creation and investment.
- This facility, which will ultimately support thousands of jobs and follows the opening of our U.S. Manufacturing Facility for A320 aircraft in Mobile, Alabama, from which we delivered our first aircraft in 2016. An A220 assembly line on the same site in Alabama will break ground in January of 2019.
With our extensive network of U.S. suppliers, Airbus is the largest consumer of U.S. aerospace and defense goods in the world – buying more than any other company or even country. Airbus invested $16.5 billion with U.S. companies in 2017, supporting 275,000 American jobs.
• June 1, 2018: U.S. military researchers are asking for industry’s help in developing a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that are able not only to operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO), but also that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies. 19)
- The DARPA Blackjack program seeks to orbit a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies.
- Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., issued a broad agency announcement (HR001118S0032) in April for the Blackjack program to develop SWaP-optimized military communications and surveillance satellites designed to operate in LEO.
- Blackjack seeks to develop low-cost space payloads and commoditized satellite buses with low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) with similar capabilities to today’s military communications that operate at geosynchronous orbit (GEO), but at a fraction of the cost.
- Military satellites are critical to U.S. warfighting capabilities. Traditionally they are placed in GEO to deliver persistent overhead access to any point on the globe.
- Yet in the increasingly contested space environment, these costly and monolithic systems are vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed. Moreover, their long development schedules make it difficult or impossible to respond quickly to new threats.
- The Blackjack program seeks to develop enabling technologies for a global high-speed network backbone in LEO that enables networked, resilient, and persistent military payloads that provide infinite over-the-horizon sensing, signals, and communications capabilities.
- Historically, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) satellites have been custom-designed, with lengthy and expensive design and upgrade cycles. The evolution of commercial space, however, has led to LEO broadband Internet communications satellites that could offer attractive economies of scale.
- The Blackjack program will emphasize a commoditized bus and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades, based on a ‘good enough’ payloads optimized for more than one type of bus.
- Commoditized satellite buses based on open-architecture electrical, software, and mesh network interface control could provide a way for dozens or hundreds of different types of military satellite payloads to operate in low-Earth orbit, DARPA officials say.
- The Blackjack program has three primary objectives:
a) develop payload and mission-level autonomy software with on-orbit distributed decision processors that can operate autonomously with on-orbit data processing, and perform shared tasks on-orbit;
b) use advanced commercial manufacturing for military payloads and the spacecraft bus, including high-rate manufacturing using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)-like parts, reduced screening and acceptance testing for individual spacecraft, and reduced expectations for spacecraft life; and
c) demonstrating satellite payloads in LEO that operate on par with current GEO systems with the spacecraft at costs of less than $6 million per satellite.
- To reduce integration risk, Blackjack will develop an avionics unit called Pit Boss for each spacecraft with high-speed processor and encryption devices that will function as a common network and electrical interface.
- Not only will Pit Boss provide a common electrical interface to each payload, but it also will provide mission level autonomy functions, enable on-orbit edge computing, manage communication between Blackjack satellites and ground users, provide a command and telemetry link to the bus, and encrypt payload data.
- Every Blackjack satellite will consist of one commoditized bus capable of broadband rate global communications to other nodes, one Pit Boss control unit, and one or more military payloads that can operate autonomously for more than 24 hours.
- The goal is to develop a 60-to-200-satellite constellation operating at altitudes of between 310.7 miles and 807.8 miles above the Earth’s surface. One operations center will cover all government satellites and payloads, and the constellation will be able to operate without the operations center for 30 days. Blackjack payload data processing will be performed on-orbit without the assistance of ground data processing.
- The program has three phases: defining bus and payload requirements; developing bus and payloads for a two satellite on-orbit demonstration; and demonstrating a two-plane system in low-Earth orbit for six months. A future Blackjack demonstration constellation will involve 20 spacecraft in two planes with one or more payloads on each satellite. Companies interested were to submit full proposals by early this month.
Emma Helfrich, ”Two Mandrake 2 satellites deployed under DARPA's
Blackjack Program,” Military Embedded Systems, 12 July 2021, URL: https://militaryembedded.com/comms/satellites/
4) ”Space Development Agency Successfully Launches First Missions,” US DOD News Release, 30 July 2021, URL: https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/
5) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX launches second dedicated rideshare mission,” SpaceNews, 30 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/spacex-launches-second-dedicated-rideshare-mission/
Sandra Erwin, ”Northrop Grumman to supply navigation payloads for
DARPA’s Blackjack satellites,” SpaceNews, 6 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
Sandra Erwin, ”Lockheed Martin wins $27 million contract
modification for integration of DARPA’s Blackjack
satellites,” SpaceNews, 22 April 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
Sandra Erwin, ”DoD space agency launching experiments in
preparation for 2022 satellite deployments,” SpaceNews, 11
February 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
Sandra Erwin, ”SpaceX’s rideshare carried small satellite
technology of interest to U.S. military,” SpaceNews, 26 January
2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
10) ”SEAKR Demonstrates DARPA Pit Boss Hardware On-Orbit In 9 Months,” AP Press Release, 6 January 2021, URL: https://apnews.com/press-release/
11) Sandra Erwin, ”DARPA okays Blue Canyon’s satellites for Blackjack program,” SpaceNews, 14 December 2020, URL: https://spacenews.com/darpa-okays-blue-canyons-satellites-for-blackjack-program/
”Telesat U.S. Services Awarded DARPA Contract for Blackjack Track
B Research, Development and in-Orbit Demonstration with Telesat
LEO,” Globe Newswire, 14 Oct. 2020, URL: https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/10/14/2108236/0/en/
13) Sandra Erwin, ”Raytheon wins $37 million DARPA contract for Blackjack payloads,” SpaceNews, 12 June 2020, URL: https://spacenews.com/raytheon-wins-37-million-darpa-contract-for-blackjack-payloads/
14) Sandra Erwin, ”DARPA to begin launching Blackjack satellites in late 2020,” SpaceNews, 11 May 2020, URL: https://spacenews.com/first-launches-of-darpa-blackjack-satellites-planned-for-late-2020/
15) Rachel Jewett,”Lockheed Martin Receives $5.8M DARPA Blackjack Contract,” Satellite Today, 27 April 2020, URL: https://www.satellitetoday.com/government-military/
16) Sandra Erwin, ”DARPA’s big bet on Blackjack,” SpaceNews, 8 January 2020, URL: https://spacenews.com/darpas-big-bet-on-blackjack/
17) ”Scientific Systems Receives DARPA Blackjack Pit Boss Prime Contract,” SSCI, 21 November 2019, URL: https://www.ssci.com/scientific-systems-receives-darpa-blackjack-pit-boss-prime-contract/
”Airbus wins DARPA contract to develop small constellation
satellite bus for Blackjack program,” Airbus, 14 January 2019,
Keller, ”DARPA Blackjack to develop small, secure military
satellites for low-Earth orbit,” Defense Executive, 1 June 2018,
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (email@example.com).