WASHINGTON — Blue Canyon Technologies is preparing to deliver a spacecraft designed for the U.S. Air Force to demonstrate the capabilities of maneuverable satellites in deep space.

The company, a subsidiary of defense and aerospace contractor RTX, expects to soon complete production and testing of Oracle-M, an Air Force Research Laboratory experiment intended to fly beyond Earth’s orbit to test satellite mobility and navigation capabilities in the cislunar region of space. 

Oracle-M (Mobility) will be AFRL’s first cislunar space mission. The Air Force is looking to demonstrate orbital change maneuvers and navigation in that largely unknown environment.

Blue Canyon is building the satellite under a $14.6 million contract awarded in November 2021.

“We are currently targeting a late July 2024 timeframe for delivery to the customer,” said Chris Winslett, general manager for Blue Canyon Technologies.

A launch date has not yet been announced. Winslett said Oracle-M is now going through spacecraft-level integration testing. “We’re getting pretty close,” he said in a recent interview. 

Flight heritage for Saturn bus

Oracle-M will fly to geostationary Earth orbit and then travel into cislunar space. “We’re excited about this one because we’ll be using our platform to demonstrate propulsion technologies and improve maneuverability,” said Winslett.

“We see cislunar space as a key region where we’re gonna see more interest from various customers,” he added. 

Blue Canyon builds all its satellite components in house except for the propulsion systems, which it acquires from suppliers such as ExoTerra.

For the Oracle-M mission the company used its Saturn-class ESPA-Grande bus. These are one of the largest in the small-satellite category, about the size of a small washing machine. The company also used the Saturn bus for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program. 

Four Blackjack satellites launched to low Earth orbit in June and are currently conducting experiments with optical inter-satellite links and autonomous on-orbit tasking software. 

DARPA has been able to communicate with all four satellites and verify that they’re operating correctly, said Winslett. Blackjack was a key project for the Saturn buses to acquire flight heritage in the space environment.

Blue Canyon anticipates more government contracts for the Saturn platform which, because of its size, is suitable for missions carrying advanced payloads for Earth observation, missile warning and secure communications. “Getting on-orbit heritage with that size bus is kind of opening up that market for us, for not only DoD, but other government customers on the civil side and the intelligence community.”

Winslett said the company is actively looking to partner with satellite manufacturers and defense contractors competing for military satellite orders from the Space Development Agency, a Space Force organization building a large constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit for communications, and for missile detection and tracking.

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...