WASHINGTON — Blue Canyon Technologies is producing four satellite buses for the Blackjack program under a $14.1 million contract awarded last month by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The contract has options for DARPA to buy up to 20 satellites for $99.4 million.

The contract puts Blue Canyon in a position to become the leading supplier of satellites buses for DARPA’s Blackjack program — an elaborate project to demonstrate the military utility of a mesh network of small satellites in low Earth orbit. DARPA said its goal is to deploy 20 satellites by 2022.

Although DARPA signed study contracts with other bus providers, only Blue Canyon has a production contract.

“Multiple bus providers remain under consideration,” Blackjack program manager Rusty Thomas told SpaceNews July 2.

He said DARPA had to put Blue Canyon on contract now in order to meet program deadlines. A key concern is making sure the satellite can operate Blackjack’s command-and-control software known as Pit Boss.

The contract lets the company start “detailed system design to ensure Pit Boss autonomy interfaces are compatible with Blue Canyon’s existing flight computer,” Thomas said. “Awarding now enables long lead procurement of bus components to support 2021 assembly, integration, test and launch schedules.”

DARPA wants Blackjack satellites to be modular so new payloads can be added without having to redesign the bus. The idea is to speed up the production and lower the cost of satellites compared to traditional acquisitions of custom-built spacecraft.

William Schum, program manager at Blue Canyon in Boulder, Colorado, told SpaceNews that the company will make Blackjack satellites at a new manufacturing facility in Lafayette, Colorado.

If DARPA exercises all options to buy 20 satellites, Schum said, that would make Blackjack the biggest contract ever won by Blue Canyon.

The satellites are based on the 150-kilogram X-SAT microsatellite bus that Blue Canyon manufacturers for commercial use. “There’s a little bit of customization,” said Schum. “In Blackjack, the driving force is to keep the cost down, take a commercial bus and see what it can do with military payloads.”

“It’s a complicated mission,” Schum said of Blackjack. Multiple suppliers are developing DoD payloads and the Pit Boss on-board system is a “critical component.”

SEAKR Engineering is developing Pit Boss. Lockheed Martin is responsible for integrating the satellites

Thomas said SEAKR serves as the “constellation and mission-level integrator above the satellite level, with support from Lockheed Martin systems engineers who are tasked with ensuring gaps between these levels are addressed by SEAKR or Lockheed Martin.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...