Air Force could assume bigger role in DARPA’s Blackjack program


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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack is small compared to traditional military space procurements but it is one of the most talked about space projects. Blackjack is a dramatic departure from the conventional ways of doing business in the Defense Department. It wants to buy small satellites from commercial vendors, equip them with military sensor payloads and deploy a small constellation in low-Earth orbit to see how they perform in real military operations.

Congress has been a huge supporter and added more than $100 million above DARPA’s request. But as the program matures, lawmakers have raised questions about its management. DARPA’s plan all along was to conduct a demonstration and then turn the program over to the Air Force. But the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center already is taking on an active role. Lawmakers want to see Blackjack accelerated and some have suggested it should move to SMC sooner rather than letter. “There’s a management issue brewing,” said an industry source.

Nothing has been decided on any management changes, Blackjack’s program manager Rusty Thomas said in a statement to SpaceNews. “DARPA is teaming with the U.S. Air Force, through the Air Force Research Lab and SMC, to jointly fund the Blackjack program. DARPA will lead the program through the conclusion of its 20-satellite autonomous demonstration phase, with SMC transition potential after conclusion of the DARPA/AFRL on-orbit demo.”

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