Three teams selected to design Project Blackjack’s brains

November 21, 2019 | by SSCI

Satellites above earth with drawn glowing lines connecting them

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has selected three teams to design Pit Boss, a system that can take data from satellites in low earth orbit, process that information in space and disseminate that information to users on Earth without any human input or instructions.

The three prime contractors are BAE Systems, SEAKR Engineering, Inc and Scientific Systems Company, Incorporated. SEAKR will work with a team that includes Microsoft, Applied Technology Associates, Advanced Solutions Inc, Kythera Space Solutions and NKrypt. Raytheon announced Nov. 19 that they will work with SSCI. Both SSCI and BAE declined to discuss the details of their contracts.

Pit Boss is an autonomous mission management system that DARPA is building for another of its casino-themed initiatives, Project Blackjack. That program aims to demonstrate the value of a large proliferated constellation of low earth orbit satellites for a variety of military uses. Satellites in low earth orbit appear to be central to the Pentagon’s plans for national security space in the next decade, partly as a way to increase resiliency but also as a way to provide unique capabilities, like tracking hypersonic weapons.

According to a broad agency announcement DARPA issued in April, Pit Boss should be able to “acquire target localization, characterization, and persistent tracking information using” a global LEO constellation. Furthermore, DARPA said Pit Boss should be able to augment PNT capabilities, space-to-surface communications and rapid dissemination of critical data worldwide.

The key innovation Pit Boss should bring will be the capability to process data in orbit, preventing the need to transport it to a ground station for processing. Not only will each Blackjack sensor be capable of performing on-board processing, Pit Boss will be able to take the data from each individual Blackjack sensor, fuse it and get it to the users who need it without commands from human satellite operators.

“Pit Boss connects the brains of each Blackjack satellite, making it one exceptionally smart, networked system,” said Raytheon Space Systems Director Mike Rokaw in a statement Nov. 19. “Rather than sending data down to a ground station for processing, which takes time we don’t have, Pit Boss will send data from space straight to the right operator at the right time.”

This technology could have implication beyond constellations in low earth orbit.

“Self-knowing satellites are the next step in autonomous space-based mission planning,” he said. “And, this isn’t limited to missile warning and defense. Future constellation management systems will migrate to this type of methodology.”

If successful, Blackjack and Pit Boss could serve as models for the U.S. military’s future space architecture. The Space Development Agency, which was stood up specifically to design that architecture, has stated previously that it will lean heavily on Blackjack as a demonstration for a proliferated LEO constellation comprised of hundreds of small satellites serving a multitude of missions, from missile defense to providing positioning, navigation and timing data.

Leaders at the upstart agency have said the key to their constellation will be building a data transport layer that can not only move information between satellites in orbit, but fuse data from multiple satellites to provide targeting solutions that can then be sent to the appropriate war fighters or weapons systems. Additionally, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, which is working with the SDA to build a LEO constellation to track hypersonic weapons, recently stated that the transportation and fusing of data in orbit will be the hardest problem to solve for defense against hypersonic weapons.

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