Home / Industry / DARPA Blackjack is Autonomous LEO Satellite Constellation with mix of commercial and military microsatellites for space security

DARPA Blackjack is Autonomous LEO Satellite Constellation with mix of commercial and military microsatellites for space security

Historically, DoD satellites have been custom-designed to specific mission sets with lengthy design and/or enhancement cycles at a high cost per spacecraft. The renaissance of commercial space has led to the design of numerous LEO constellations whose design and manufacturing methodologies potentially offer economies of scale previously unavailable. DARPA is interested in leveraging these advances in order to demonstrate unique military utility.


According to US army, there are many benefits of Smallsats in LEO: the first is low per-unit cost that enables affordable satellite constellations with minimal personnel and logistics tail and opportunity of frequent technology refresh.  The second is high survivability as they fly far above common threats and crowded airspace. The constellations also degrade gracefully and lost capability can be rapidly augmented and reconstituted.


The ASAT attack is also difficult as microsatellites provide very very small target. Large networks of small, cheap satellites derived from commercial technology would be harder for China or Russia to kill than a handful of expensive, exquisite large military satellites. ASAT attack also becomes less economical with ASAT engagement cost ratio in our favor.


The Responsiveness is also enhanced due to rapid design and building, can be tasked from theater and also better adapt to the threat.  Smaller, lower-cost satellites, built and launched on frequent schedules could also make it much easier to reconstitute space capabilities, and introduce new technologies and capabilities. “The larger numbers of satellites complicate an adversary’s decision-making calculus and increases the uncertainty of outcomes. New countermeasures could also be added as the corresponding threat systems are developed and fielded.”


Blackjack is a joint technology demonstration project by DARPA and the U.S. Space Force to evaluate utility and concepts of operation for a large-scale proliferated low Earth orbit satellite constellation. By incorporating commercial sector advances in LEO, including designs used for LEO broadband internet service, the goal of the Blackjack Program is to demonstrate that a constellation of LEO satellites meets Department of Defense (DoD) performance and payload requirements, at a significantly lower cost, with shorter design cycles and with easier and more frequent technology upgrades. The Blackjack Program aims to demonstrate an economy of scale not previously available with current National Security Space (NSS) assets, which are large, costly, and would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed.


DARPA Director Walker said it’s time for DoD to shift future spending to constellations in low earth orbit made up of dozens or hundreds of small satellites. Both DoD and the commercial sector have “very exquisite satellites,” he said. They are high-performance systems but cost too much, and take too long to build and launch, Walker added. “We have been saying this for 10 years: We want to see a shift to LEO, get capabilities in larger constellations.” The more satellites in the system, the harder it will be for the enemy to take it down, the thinking goes. Larger constellations can be used for multiple missions, Walker said, and they could even “enable a battle management system for tactical war fighting on the ground,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for a while” but only recently have these ideas been taken more seriously.


Both the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the Pentagon’s brand-new Space Development Agency (SDA) are laying plans to transition Blackjack’s technology into their own acquisition programs. “SMC is currently partnered with DARPA and providing funding for Blackjack. When Blackjack is proven successful, SMC is planning a transition of the architecture to a program called CASINO [Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations].”


Blackjack Program Successfully Deploys Two Mandrake 2 Satellites, reported in July 2021

DARPA successfully deployed two satellites on June 30 as part of the SpaceX Transporter 2 launch. Both Mandrake 2 spacecraft, Able and Baker, are functioning well and progressing through checkout and commissioning. Conceived as an early risk-reduction flight for DARPA’s Blackjack program, the Mandrake 2 mission will 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.

During its on-orbit mission, Mandrake 2 will demonstrate the viability of low size, weight, power, and cost laser communications terminals that are interoperable. “This constitutes a game-changing advancement and a critical enabler for proliferated space architectures,” said Stephen Forbes who is program manager of the Blackjack program in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “Mandrake 2 has already successfully demonstrated a rapid satellite development timeline, since the Blackjack program moved from contract award to delivery of space vehicles at the launch site in less than nine months.”

The successful 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. 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.

SEAKR conducts optical communication for DARPA’s Mandrake 2 satellites reported in June 2022

Raytheon Technologies’ wholly owned subsidiary SEAKR Engineering has successfully conducted demonstrations under the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Blackjack project. The company showcased on-orbit optical inter-satellite links between DARPA’s two Mandrake 2 satellites.

As part of the first demonstration, around 280GB of data were transferred at a 114km range in a period exceeding 40 minutes. SEAKR Engineering and Blue Canyon Technologies president Jeff Schrader said: “This was a demonstration not only of optical communications in space but also a closer look at some of the foundational building blocks needed for a networked space architecture.”

In June 2021, DARPA deployed two Mandrake 2 spacecraft under the Blackjack project to demonstrate advanced laser communications. Known as Able and Baker, the two satellites were equipped with SA Photonics optical links onboard an Astro Digital bus. As the prime contractor, SEAKR led the system integration of both satellites while satellite software required for operating the vehicles was provided by ASI.


DARPA’s Blackjack program

DARPA has launched the Blackjack program with the ultimate objective to demonstrate a distributed low earth orbit constellation that provides global persistent coverage with a total cost of ownership that is less than a single exquisite satellite. DARPA’s Blackjack program develops and demonstrates 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.


Scalable Architecture

While the BAA will seek to demonstrate a smaller subset of satellites, for a full understanding of the future vision the operational (long-term) design reference mission is for a tens-of-satellites (60-200) constellation operating between 500km and 1,300km altitude with one or more payloads on each satellite. Each satellite is envisioned to have a recurring cost, including launch, of less than $6M.


DARPA envisions increasing the number of satellites in a given functional layer from a demonstration level (e.g., 20 nodes, sufficient to provide extended coverage over a geographic region for several hours) to a fully-capable constellation of hundreds of nodes providing constant custody of points of interest worldwide. Scalable architectures more easily accommodate greater numbers of satellite nodes without degradation to tasking, collection, processing, and data dissemination functions – Pit Boss will be expected to provide data products on short timelines to thousands of subscribers simultaneously.


Finally, Blackjack will leverage open architecture standards and system controls permitting easy insertion of third-party software and hardware elements, including space-based payloads and hosted applications, communications equipment, and surface-based user devices and software. Satellite Integration performers will be expected to provide the flexibility to enable iterative development of Blackjack elements by all developers.


Scaling-up in this fashion should not require different software or a new cloud network architecture. Finally, adaptable architectures are those that leverage open architecture standards and system controls permitting easy insertion of third-party software and hardware elements, including space-based payloads and hosted applications, communications equipment, and surface-based user devices and software.

The key program objectives are:

  • Develop payload and mission-level autonomy software and demonstrate autonomous orbital operations including on-orbit distributed decision processors.

It is envisioned that Blackjack spacecraft would operate near, or proliferated co-orbitally within a commercial constellation with communications and operations provided by the commercial constellation. Blackjack satellites will not be an integral or required element of the commercial constellation and can operate independently.  A single operations center will cover all satellites/payloads irrespective of the payload(s) on each satellite, and the constellation will be capable of operating without the operations center for 30 days. The operations center will be manned by no more than two people whose primary function is setting constellation level priorities. Blackjack payload data processing will be performed on-orbit without the assistance of ground data processing.

  • Blackjack Pit Boss segment will provide Satellite and Constellation autonomy.

For Pit Boss, DARPA researchers will want industry proposals on artificial intelligence software to support constellation and satellite autonomy; massively distributed computing; precision timing; high-assurance cyber solutions; low-cost on-orbit processing hardware; space cryptographic solutions; and system and mission integration services.

The Blackjack Pit Boss segment of the program consists of developing an avionics box and computing node — also called an edge processor — which includes hosted autonomy software with artificial intelligence; dynamically distributed computing dispersed among hundreds to thousands of nodes; precision timing; low SWaP-C space processing hardware; embedded cyber security; cryptographic solutions; mission integration; and spacecraft integration.

DARPA expects the Pit Boss network to incorporate advances in constellation command and control, health monitoring and remediation, inter-and intra-satellite data management, and on-orbit resource scheduling for hundreds (and eventually thousands) of DoD satellite nodes, with minimal human intervention.


Pit Boss will perform target hand-off among satellites surveilling a given geographic region, as individual P-LEO nodes will be continuously entering and exiting these regions due not only to (1) the high velocities of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) nodes relative to a ground position, but also due to (2) differences in altitude, payload phenomenology, footprint, and fields of view. Active nodes surveilling a geographic region at any given time define an “instantaneous orbital observation group.”

DARPA is interested in artificial intelligence software that can capitalize on multiple-modality sensor webs and exploit space-based mesh networks to move critical data quickly to platforms, units, and other elements at the tactical edge. This includes a dynamic and evolving ability to detect, identify, and track physical targets based on training data, tasking inputs, and learning, as well as an ability to hand-off target data to other satellites in the mesh network. This could be more difficult than it sounds. Satellites that detect targets must maintain constant custody of these targets, and to do so even when several individual satellites are compromised or are unable to join or rejoin the network.


These satellites must be of low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C), and have heterogeneous processing hardware that includes general purpose processors (GPP), field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), and graphics processing units (GPUs) suitable for a LEO environment. Satellite also will need low SWaP-C space-qualified cryptography for routable multi-level security for commoditized satellite buses with military payloads.

Pit Boss will be electronically situated between the payloads and the spacecraft bus, providing electrical, timing, and network connectivity for each payload, and provide packet routing between the payloads, the networked Blackjack spacecraft constellation nodes, the broader commercial spacecraft constellation nodes, and ground terminals. Pit Boss edge processors also will provide cyber protection and data encryption and decryption for secure communications across the networked elements, as well as provide payload management, payload power switching, tasking, and scheduling, satellite resource management, constellation management, clocking, and timing.

These satellites must be able to identify subscribers that need fast targeting information and ensure that critical data gets to them quickly. This will involve approaches to ensure data integrity, authentication of subscribers, and maintain low network latency. The Pit Boss edge processor will be on-orbit the Blackjack computational, cryptographic, timing node hosted aboard all Blackjack satellites.


  • Develop and implement advanced commercial manufacturing for military payloads and the spacecraft bus.

Blackjack will emphasize the marriage of commoditized busses and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades. DARPA had launched a program called Blackjack in 2018 and invited companies to pitch ideas on:, “How to leverage the commercial sector at LEO, how we leverage the manufacturing of smaller cheaper satellite buses, and looking at how we put our payloads into those more affordable buses,” Walker said. Under Blackjack, DARPA hopes to have successfully launched 20 demonstration satellites with a variety of experimental payloads based on a ‘standardized’ commercially-provided satellite bus by the end of fiscal 2022, according to the agency’s website. DARPA asked for $25 million for the project in FY2020, up from $16.4 million the previous year.


DARPA expects the Blackjack architecture to be extensible, easily integrating multiple types of commoditized satellite buses with a wide range of militarily relevant payloads supporting a variety of potential missions (e.g., detection, characterization, and tracking of advanced missile threats; alternate, high-accuracy positioning, navigation, and timing; and space based surface moving target indication). Each pairing of a specific bus and one or more payloads (e.g., an infrared camera and its host satellite) will define a node in a particular functional constellation layer. Incorporating different pairings of a bus and one or more payloads, other functional layers may be rapidly deployed and integrated without modifying the architecture.


DARPA will be soliciting innovative proposals in the following technical area(s): low cost, mass reproducible, space payloads and commoditized satellite buses. Proposed research will investigate:

(1) Payload approaches that enable revolutionary improvements in size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C), providing military utility from a globally proliferated low earth orbit (LEO) constellation; and

(2) Commoditized satellite buses capable of hosting military payloads assuming their primary commercial payloads with space and/or ground network connectivity are not installed


Commoditized Bus

DARPA will be seeking a commoditized satellite bus offering various payload options, along with constellation communication services and architecture services. The bus is expected to be as identical as possible to a commercial bus. “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.”


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is soliciting innovative proposals for Blackjack Satellite Integration. Under the Blackjack program, DARPA is contemplating a broad range of commercial satellite buses and military payloads and desires an approach that supports pairing any of the Blackjack commodity buses with any Blackjack payload, as late as possible in the design process.


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, said Paul “Rusty” Thomas.


DARPA is interested in low SWaP-C (Size, Weight, and Power, plus Cost) payloads that provide military utility when flown in a distributed LEO constellation. Mission areas of interest include missile detection, missile defense, position, navigation, and timing (PNT) services, and multiple radio frequency applications.


  • Demonstrate payloads in LEO to augment NSS assets.

The Blackjack demonstration program will investigate the incorporation of multiple functional layers and payload phenomenologies into a unified data collection and distribution architecture. These layers are expected to include overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensors, Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) payloads for Global Positioning System (GPS) augmentation, radio frequency (RF) and optical communications, including direct connectivity with tactical users from low earth orbit (LEO), multiple tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance payloads, and all-weather, multi-domain asset geolocation, identification, characterization, and tracking.

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.


Overall, Blackjack seeks to develop enabling technologies for a global high-speed network backbone operating in LEO that enables networked, resilient, and persistent military satellite payloads that provide infinite over-the-horizon sensing, signals, and communications capabilities. 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.


Blackjack Awards

Within the Blackjack program, DARPA envisions five separate categories of contracts across multiple opportunities: commoditized buses, payloads, constellation-level autonomy, node integration, and launch/operations. 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.


DARPA’s goal is to find lower cost alternatives to traditional military satellites. DARPA aims to pay no more than $6 million per satellite, including launch. European satellite manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space and small satellite manufacturer Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado, received similar contracts over the past four weeks — Airbus for $2.9 million and Blue Canyon for $1.5 million. 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.


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, , said  Thomas.


Radiant Solutions, a Maxar Technologies company, was awarded a $2 million contract by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to lead a team in designing, building, and demonstrating a next-generation optical telescope system for small satellite constellations. Radiant Solutions is partnered on this program with SSL, Maxar’s spacecraft manufacturing business.


The satellite telescope system’s lightweight design and large field-of-view is expected to enable more capable small satellites that can be manufactured more rapidly and economically. The system can scale to many dozens of spacecraft for persistent coverage. To reduce mass, the system’s design incorporates a silicon carbide material designed for demanding space applications.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded satellite operator Telesat a contract to study the use of commercial buses in the agency’s experimental low-Earth-orbit constellation program known as Blackjack. Telesat of Ottawa, Canada, is the third company to receive a study contract for Blackjack, a DARPA demonstration mission that envisions deploying 20 satellites — each carrying one or more payloads. It will be evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat.


Telesat’s $2.8 million contract, which the company announced Nov. 2019, is a 12-month study to assess the utility of Telesat buses as the company refines its plans for a constellation of roughly 300 small, broadband satellites. Telesat has yet to select a manufacturer for its satellites. Two contenders, Airbus Defence and Space and a team formed by Thales Alenia Space and Maxar Technologies, are competing to build an unspecified number of satellites. Michael Schwartz, Telesat’s senior vice president of corporate and business development said the company still plans to down select a manufacturer in the spring.


“DARPA’s objective is to get economies of scale by developing a pipeline of spacecraft synchronized with the Telesat spacecraft production line, to get the lowest possible cost for the spacecraft bus supporting Blackjack missions,” he said. “One of the great things about the Telesat LEO network is it is a highly resilient, low-latency network. It brings a lot of the things to government users that they have been talking about needing.”


Defense contractor Leidos will assist Telesat in fulfilling the DARPA contract, Telesat said in a press release. Telesat received an earlier contract Nov. 16 worth approximately $550,000 to help DARPA better understand “commercial, commoditized buses, their operational concepts, and to define their mechanical, electrical, and network interfaces,” Paul Thomas, DARPA’s project manager for Blackjack. Airbus and OneWeb, which together are building 900 small, telecom satellites, also received a study contract for the same purpose, Thomas said.


Virginia-based Trident Systems also received a $1.5 million Blackjack contract Jan. 8, according to Federal Business Opportunities. DARPA plans to spend $117.5 million on as many as eight bus and payload contractors over the course of the three-phase program, the agency said last year.​​


DARPA wants to make plug-and-play satellites where new payloads can be added without having to redesign the bus. That approach would allow the military to speed up the production and lower the cost of satellites compared to traditional acquisitions of custom-built spacecraft. DARPA plans to launch the first two satellites in late 2020 and 18 more by 2022.


SA Photonics, of Los Gatos, California, received a contract to produce optical communications terminals to be delivered by March 2021. DARPA will put up a pair of small satellites that will carry optical inter-satellite links for broadband data. The agency said this technology could form the basis of future optically meshed networks in LEO.


Airbus to Develop Satellite Bus for DARPA

Airbus announced this week it received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract to develop a satellite bus for the Blackjack program, which aims to field a mass-produced, resilient network of commercial satellites equipped with military sensors in low-earth orbit.


“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 said in a release. “Constellations of inexpensive satellites permit wide scale disaggregated architectures enhancing survivability across many different mission areas.” The company is partnering with Florida-based OneWeb Satellites to manufacture modular constellations.


DARPA described the Blackjack program as an architecture demonstration intending to show the military utility of global Low Earth Orbit (LEO) 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 Airbus Defense and Space U.S. Space Programs Director Tim Deaver. “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.”


Mynaric inks deal with Telesat in Oct 2020 to supply terminals for DARPA’s Blackjack satellite program and laser inter-satellite communication links

Mynaric has been selected by Telesat to supply multiple units of its flagship CONDOR optical inter-satellite link terminals to DARPA’s Blackjack Track B program, in a deal demonstrating continued success for Mynaric in accessing the U.S. government market. The terminals are scheduled to be delivered in mid-2021 to DARPA’s Blackjack System Integrator with satellites scheduled to launch in the latter part of 2021. The launch will be the inaugural ride to space for Mynaric’s flagship CONDOR terminals – a key milestone and final trial for the product’s successful market introduction. Telesat aims to utilize the mission to demonstrate the capabilities, as well as the interoperability, of laser communication products from different vendors as part of the DARPA Blackjack program.


As part of the deal, Mynaric will also establish the industry’s first laser communication interoperability lab at its Los Angeles premises. The lab will be equipped with a link testbed capable of emulating conditions in space and testing inter-vendor operability – a key requirement of DARPA for its proliferated LEO constellation plans. The soon-to-be-established interoperability lab will provide laser communication vendors selected as part of the Blackjack program with the opportunity to verify their compatibility with Mynaric’s terminals and between each other. It is intended to serve as a hub and enabler for testing interoperability and to help establish a common laser communication standard within the Blackjack program and potentially beyond.


“Optical Inter-Satellite Links are the essential building block for next generation commercial and government space networks. Mynaric has developed impressive laser communications terminals that we will be demonstrating on-orbit under the DARPA Blackjack program. We expect that Mynaric, as a part of Telesat’s Blackjack team, will show the way to affordable ultra-high bandwidth laser communications capability for future resilient government space networks.” – Don Brown, General Manager, Telesat U.S. Services Mynaric’s CONDOR terminal, specifically developed for mass deployment and under stringent low size, weight, power and cost requirements (SWaP-C), is a natural fit for the program.


“We are very happy to welcome Telesat and DARPA as inaugural launch customers for our CONDOR terminals and we are very much looking forward to supporting the mission’s target to demonstrate interoperability between different vendors. Interoperability allows not just DARPA but all of our customers to de-risk their supply chains and we expect it to work as a catalyst accelerating the large-volume deployment of laser communication systems. Consequently, Mynaric aims to take a leading role in establishing open industry standards for laser communications and it is an honor to host the industry’s first interoperability lab at our facilities in Los Angeles.”
– Bulent Altan, CEO, Mynaric


Blue Canyon  for  satellites and satellite buses

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. Small satellite manufacturer Blue Canyon Technologies has been cleared to produce its first two satellites for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program, the company announced Dec. 2020. In feb 2021 Blue Canyon Technologies announced to have received a contract option worth $26.5 million to produce six satellites. Blue Canyon Technologies is in the process of being acquired by Raytheon Technologies.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced on June 10 it awarded Blue Canyon Technologies a $14.1 million contract for satellite buses for the Blackjack program. DARPA on June 9 also announced a $16.3 million contract award to SA Photonics for Blackjack payloads. Both companies already had been selected as part of a pool of Blackjack satellite bus and payload suppliers and had received study contracts. These latest contracts are to produce hardware for the demonstration.


Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado announced the same month it received $1.5 million to design a micro-satellite. “Subsequent phases will cover detailed design up through a [critical design review], construction of two flight spacecraft, launch, and demonstration of the first two spacecraft for six months, and finally build and launch 18 additional spacecraft to complete a 20-spacecraft constellation demonstration by 2021,” Blue Canyon said in a Nov. 26 release.


In October 2018, BCT won the $1.54 million contract for Phase 1 – Architecture and Design of the spacecraft. In 2019, BCT and DARPA completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) at BCT’s manufacturing facility, demonstrating that the design met bus level requirements for multiple high military utility payload types and national security space missions. The next phase of the program will focus on system level requirements and ground simulation of mission capability of BCT’s spacecraft technology working in concert with Blackjack’s Pit Boss on-orbit constellation autonomy system.


Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT),  announced in July 2020 the details of its contract award for Phases 2 and 3 of the Blackjack Program, a military space capabilities demonstration developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  The contract has an initial award value of $14.2 million with a total potential value of $99.4 million if all options are exercised, and will utilize BCT’s high performance bus and bus components designed specifically for LEO missions. Initially BCT will complete the final design of the multi-mission bus and begin procurement for the build of the first 4 satellites. The customized X-SAT bus will include state-of-the-art electric propulsion, a robust power system, command and data handling, RF communications and dedicated payload interfaces capable of hosting several different DoD payloads. The spacecraft will be delivered on a rapid timeline to support the critical DARPA demonstration schedule, with the first spacecraft to be delivered in mid-2021.


Small satellite manufacturer Blue Canyon Technologies announced Sept. 2020 that it selected Orbion Space Technology to supply the electric propulsion system for the U.S. military’s Blackjack constellation. William Schum, program manager at Blue Canyon, told SpaceNews the company looked at electric propulsion systems from several vendors and chose Orbion’s because it offered the most reliable solution for the price. “It was definitely competitive and it was a tough competition,” said Schum. “At the end of the day what carries the most weight is the technical risk, and their solution showed the least technical risk amongst the competitors.”


Orbion CEO Brad King said plasma thruster technology is mature but is now being mass produced and affordable for proliferated LEO constellations. Blackjack is leading the way in the military’s deployment of a proliferated electric propulsion architecture, King told SpaceNews. “This is the first time our government needs a relatively large number of sophisticated smallsat electric propulsion systems.”


SEAKR moving forward with DARPA’s Pit Boss project

SEAKR Engineering, Inc. announced in Jan 2021 that it realized on-orbit technology demonstration of Pit Boss supercomputing processing hardware in nine 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.


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 I, 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 II, aims to advance laser communications between satellites and to ground or airborne assets with Blackjack constellation laser terminals.


Pit Boss is the autonomous mission management system that will be used for DARPA’s Project Blackjack, an initiative to demonstrate the value of a proliferated low earth orbit constellation that takes advantage of off-the-shelf commercial satellite technologies for military uses. According to DARPA, Pit Boss will be able to take data collected by the satellites, process it on orbit and then disseminate that information to users or platforms on Earth without human input.


DARPA selected three teams, led by BAE Systems, SEAKR and Scientific Systems Company, to develop Pit Boss solutions. SEAKR’s team included Microsoft, Applied Technology Associates, Advanced Solutions Inc, Kythera Space Solutions and NKryptPhase. SEAKR said it has received a Phase I Option II contract to continue its work on Pit Boss as the sole prime.  “The award validates SEAKR’s current program success in seeking on-orbit demonstration of state of the art processing capability incorporating autonomous operations, artificial intelligence, machine learning techniques, and bridged terrestrial and on-orbit technologies,” the company said in a statement.


Loft Orbital satellite to carry experiment for DARPA’s Blackjack program

Loft Orbital, a San Francisco-based startup, is working under a contract from Scientific Systems Company Inc. Boston-based SSCI received a DARPA contract to fly a demonstration of the Blackjack Pit Boss mission system. Blackjack program manager Rusty Thomas told SpaceNews on July 9 that the upcoming Pit Boss experiment, dubbed Sagittarius A*, is projected to launch in early 2021. The experiment is a “risk reduction” mission in preparation for the production of the main Blackjack satellites planned for launch in late 2021.


Pit Boss is the mission management system that will make it possible for Blackjack satellites to autonomously acquire, process and distribute information to users. SSCI developed the Pit Boss software for this demonstration and is a subcontractor to SEAKR Engineering, based in Centennial, Colorado. SEAKR was selected by DARPA as the Pit Boss prime contractor.


The Pit Boss demonstration has two payloads. One is the flight computer that runs the SSCI autonomy software. The second is a commercial optical imaging sensor that will search for targets in the open ocean. The data will be fed to the flight computer for on-board analysis and processing. The Pit Boss’ artificial intelligence will process the data and retask the satellite as it searches for targets.


The YAM-3 satellite — a small spacecraft about the size of a washing machine — is being built by LeoStella, a joint venture of Thales Alenia Space and the earth observation company BlackSky. The Blackjack mission on YAM-3 (short for Yet Another Mission) will be flying with other payloads from multiple customers on a SpaceX SSO Rideshare launch, Greenberg told SpaceNews.


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 million contract in May 2021

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 million contract Phase 2 of the Blackjack program to “advance its Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) payload through emulation and Critical Design Review, and build PNT payload units destined for space flight.”


“Northrop Grumman’s software-defined Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) technology will offer military users an agile new signal from low Earth orbit (LEO) that is not dependent on existing satellite navigation systems,” said Dr. Nicholas Paraskevopoulos, chief technology officer and sector vice president, emerging capabilities development. “Warfighters depend on assured PNT 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.”


Danbury Mission Technologies to develop reconnaissance satellite electro-optical payload for DARPA Blackjack in June 2021

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., announced $42.9 million contract to Danbury  for phase two of the Blackjack program that seeks to orbit a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies.


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. Danbury Mission Technologies specializes in tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites; electro-optical satellite payloads, optical subsystems; and launch vehicle and satellite electronics.





References and  resources also include:









About Rajesh Uppal

Check Also

Empowering the Lunar Future: Advanced Power Distribution and Transmission Technologies for Moon Exploration and Colonization

Introduction: In our quest for lunar exploration and potential colonization, securing a reliable and efficient …

error: Content is protected !!