These payloads will pave the way for Pit Boss

June 16, 2020 | by Nathan Strout

Sun on Earth's horizon

Demonstration payloads launched this fall will reduce the risk for DARPA’s Project Blackjack, slated to begin launching in 2021. (DARPA)

Two contractors have revealed new details about demonstration satellites that will be launched later this year to reduce risk for a project known as Pit Boss, an autonomous mission system that will power the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Project Blackjack.

Project Blackjack is DARPA’s effort to demonstrate the value of a proliferated constellation of low Earth orbit satellites for the Department of Defense. Beginning in late 2021, the agency will launch up to 2020 Blackjack satellites that will form a mesh network on orbit incorporating Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) sensors, processing power in space, and artificial intelligence capabilities.

But before the agency begins launching actual Blackjack satellites, it plans to put risk reduction payloads on orbit to test out some of the key technologies. A June 16 press release from Blackjack’s prime contractors SEAKR Engineering and Scientific Systems Company, Inc. provided new details on those technology demonstrators.

SEAKR Engineering is a prime contractor for Pit Boss, the autonomous mission system that will be the brains behind Project Blackjack. Pit Boss will be able to task, process and distribute data from the constellation without human guidance.

SEAKR will support Blackjack with two demonstration flights: Mandrake I and Mandrake II. Mandrake I will test key Pit Boss hardware and chip level technologies in the space environment prior to full production. Mandrake II will test the optical intersatellite links and laser terminals that are essential for the formation of the on orbit mesh network. Both will be launched as rideshares.

SSCI will support Sagittarius-A*, another Pit Boss demonstration. Incorporating technologies from a number of other companies, Sagittarius-A* will demonstrate Battlefield Management Command and Control (BMC3) software capabilities. Once a user submits a data service request through prototype ground software, the system will autonomously manage the bus and payload to fulfill the request. SSCI’s pen BMC3 software will be able to host third-party exploitation algorithms, also known as mass-less payloads. Multiple mass-less payloads are anticipated to be uploaded to the system to exploit data collected by the payload once on orbit.

The Sagittarius-A* processor will be placed on orbit by Loft Orbital as part of its YAM-3 spacecraft, which will host a number of commercial and government payloads.

“With a successful execution of Sagittarius A*, we can complete our journey of demonstration testing (Collaborative Mission Autonomy) in all of the physical domains,” said SSCI Vice President of Research and Development Owen Brown in a statement. “The implication is that DARPA has established a technology paradigm that not only could offer BMC3 services for Proliferated LEO architectures, but that same technology could help unlock many of the capabilities required for multidomain integration of intelligent systems operating at the edge”.

DARPA has also confirmed another demonstration payload named Wildcard, which will experiment with links to tactical radios from orbit over a software-defined radio.

Filed under: SSCI in the News