DARPA to begin new effort to build military constellations in low Earth orbit

Laying a path for the military to transition from huge satellites in geostationary earth orbit to constellations of smaller platforms in LEO has been a longtime pursuit at DARPA.

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency next week will start reviewing bids from space industry vendors as it sets out to prove that there are cheaper, nimbler alternatives to traditional military satellites.

DARPA last year launched the project known as Blackjack with the goal to develop a low Earth orbit constellation to provide global persistent coverage for military operations. The closing date for bids is June 6.

Laying a path for the military to transition from huge satellites in geostationary Earth orbit to constellations of smaller and less expensive platforms in LEO has been a longtime pursuit at DARPA. That goal recently took on greater urgency as the military weighs replacing existing constellations  that could be targeted by enemies with more resilient systems that would be easier to reconstitute if they came under electronic or kinetic attack.

Global surveillance and communications would be the obvious missions for Blackjack-funded prototype constellations, but there have been talks about broadening the scope to more complex assignments such as space-based battle management. DARPA will take on the initial development and engineering work for the next three years and later could turn over prototype systems to the U.S. Air Force for further testing and possibly operational use.

The basic formula will be to attach military-unique sensors and payloads to commercial satellite buses. DARPA plans to award $117.5 million in contracts over three phases to up to eight bus or payload suppliers. According to DARPA’s solicitation, there will be additional contract awards down the road for autonomy hardware and software, launch services, ground systems and constellation flight operations.

DARPA describes the Blackjack program as an “architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight, and cost spacecraft nodes.” No single type or size of bus or mission payload type will be considered “optimal” for this demonstration.

A DARPA spokesman said the agency at this stage of the program could not comment on Blackjack.

According to DARPA’s request for proposals, companies can offer satellite buses that are either from existing or in-development production lines as long as they can “accommodate a wide range of military payload types without redesign or retooling of the production line for each payload.”

Once selected, the buses will be expected to accommodate Blackjack payloads and “multiple types of payloads for potential follow on DoD programs without redesign of the bus.”

The idea is to demonstrate that “good enough” payloads in LEO can perform military missions, augment existing programs, and potentially perform “on par or better than currently deployed exquisite space systems.”

Payload providers will be given draft documents at program kickoff that define the interfaces and environments of each bus under consideration for flight.

The intent is to keep the program unclassified. Bidders do not need a security clearance to submit proposals.

Spearheading the Blackjack program is Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. Kennedy has criticized the military space business as being stuck in its old ways and missing opportunities to jump on the innovation bandwagon. At industry conferences, Kennedy has called out the Pentagon for embracing a culture of high performance and low risk that is now working against the military because it has given enemies ample time to develop counter-space weapons that could be used to disable or destroy U.S. satellites.