DARPA’s Blackjack Jumps Forward With Payload, Bus, Demo Awards

June 15, 2020 | by Theresa Hitchens

Satellites above earth with drawn glowing lines connecting them

WASHINGTON:  DARPA’s closely-watched Blackjack program to explore how DoD can use commercial technology to develop a range of technologies — from communications systems to sensors to on-orbit data processing software to low-cast busses — for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations is pushing fast toward first launch in 2021, with a spate of contracts issued over the past couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, a set of three risk reduction experiments are being planned for rideshare launches (i.e. as payloads on rockets carrying other satellites) later this year, managed by prime contractors SEAKR Engineering and Scientific Systems Co. Inc (SSCI). “Each flight aims to verify and validate key technologies to be integrated into Blackjack satellites, to include high-speed supercomputing, optical inter-satellite links, ground software for tactical user access, satellite and constellation autonomy, and advanced processing, exploitation, and dissemination,” the two companies said in an announcement this evening.  

On Friday, DARPA issued Raytheon a $37.4 million award to provide an Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) sensor to be integrated into multiple bus designs and the Pit Boss cloud-based, autonomous mission management system for the constellation.  Lockheed Martin was chosen in late April as prime systems integrator for Phase 1 of the program. Pit Boss is being developed by SEAKR and SSCI.

Under the Phase 2 contract, Raytheon will “complete design, fabricate, test, and deliver in quantity space-flight ready OPIR payloads”  with work estimated to be completed in April 2023.

(Raytheon, along with the Northrop Grumman/Ball Aerospace team, is designing an IR sensor payload for the Air Force’s Next-Generation OPIR  system missile warning satellites. Raytheon’s Intelligence and Space unit on May 27 announced that its sensor had passed preliminary design review, and that the company is now readying hardware for next year’s Critical Design Review.)

On June 9, DARPA awarded a $16.4 million contract to SA Photonics in Los Gatos, California, for optical communications terminals for the various satellite busses to be delivered by next March.

Although Blackjack Program Manager Rusty Thomas told Breaking D in an email today that multiple bus providers remain in the competition, Blue Canyon Technologies in Boulder, Colorado on June 10 won a $14.9 million contract for busses to be delivered by June 2021.

“Multiple bus providers remain under consideration. BCT’s contract initiates detailed system design to ensure Pit Boss autonomy interfaces are compatible with BCT’s existing flight computer,” he said.

Blackjack is testing multiple payloads on multiple satellites buses — with modular designs that permit plug and play capability — to “develop and validate critical elements of global high-speed autonomous networks in LEO.” Such low-cost, proliferated LEO constellations could provide DoD “with highly connected, resilient, and persistent overhead coverage,” according to a DARPA news release. 

The technologies being developed under Blackjack are critical to enabling DoD’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) network to underpin future All-Domain Operations. So-called proliferated LEO operations — particularly broadband satellites to enable high speed, low-latency Internet connectivity — are being eyed across DoD — particularly by the Air Force under its Advanced Battle Management System effort.

DARPA hopes to have a 20 low-cost demonstration satellites on orbit by 2022, when as Breaking D readers know, decisions are expected on whether the effort will be transformed into a program of record, and if so by whom — the Space Development Agency (SDA) or the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). Both currently are slated as Blackjack transition partners. 

Next steps for the program are for four “risk reduction” launches as rideshares hopefully this year and next — depending on how launch providers are affected by the COVID 19 pandemic. (Rideshares are different than hosted payloads, in that they involve launches of individual satellites, albeit often tiny ones. Hosted payloads are payload packages, such as a sensor system, carried on someone else’s satellite.)

These flight demos include, according to the SEAKR-SSCI announcement:

  • The Mandrake 1 cubesat that “aims to demonstrate key Pit Boss hardware and chip level technologies prior to full production; and,
  • The Mandrake 2, which is a partnership between DARPA and SDA, carrying a pair of optical satellite-to-satellite interlinks “designed to engage laser communications between satellites and also to ground assets with Blackjack constellation laser terminals.”

Taken together, DARPA explains, the two Mandrakes could help demonstrate the feasibility of LEO-based optically meshed data networks. SEAKR is the prime for these experiments.

SCCI is managing the third risk reduction flight, a data fusion experiment, Sagittarius A*. “The experiment, according to the SEAKR-SCCI announcement, “is planned to include technology provided by SSCI’s partners Orbit Logic, Emergent Space Technologies, Raytheon BBN, LeafLabs, Kitware, HawkEye360, and Innoflight.”

That experiment will be carried on Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 microsatellite. Loft Orbital will be charged with integrating “the Sagittarius-A* Innoflight processor, loaded with the SSCI team’s autonomous battle management command, control, and communications (BMC3) software” onto its spacecraft for launch, the announcement said.

According to DARPA, a fourth risk reduction payload also in the works is Wildcard, a software defined radio that could link LEO satellites directly to tactical radios on the ground.

Thomas explained in his email that “the upcoming risk reduction flights aim to demonstrate advanced technology for satellite constellation autonomy and space mesh networks in advance of the Blackjack demonstration constellation.

“They are separate flights to prove technologies,” he added, “and not included in the ‘up to 20’ satellite demonstration constellation. Several sensor payloads are still under consideration for Blackjack constellation satellites, as is the order in which they will launch.”

According to DARPA’s May press release, work to begin integration complete payloads for the 20 full-up demonstration satellites will begin later this summer, with two satellites planned for launch in 2021 and the rest in 2022.

Blackjack is slated to get $75 million in DARPA’s 2021 budget request, up $25 million from the $50 million allocated by Congress last year.

The Air Force’s 2021 request for the Space Force show $59 million in Military Interdepartmental Purchase (MIPR) funds for Blackjack development between the first and third quarters of 2021 and support for the launch of two satellites beginning in the fourth quarter stretching through the end of 2022.

SDA’s 2021 budget documents include no Blackjack-specific funding.

Filed under: SSCI in the News