WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on June 12 launched four satellites for a technology demonstration in low Earth orbit.

The satellites flew to orbit on the SpaceX Transporter-8 rideshare. They are part of the Blackjack experiment the agency started in 2017 to prove out the utility of commercial space technologies for military applications.  

Once envisioned as a 20-satellite constellation with different types of mission payloads, Blackjack has been reduced in scope and will only deploy four spacecraft. 

The vision DARPA laid out in 2017 for the Blackjack project — to show the Pentagon how it could harness the commercial space revolution — has been overtaken by events, as the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency already is on its way to deploy a LEO constellation for the Defense Department.

The first Blackjack launch had been planned for 2021 but the schedule kept moving to the right due to supply chain problems.

Blackjack program manager Stephen Forbes confirmed that DARPA does not expect to add more satellites to the experiment beyond the four that launched on Monday. 

“At this time, this is our only planned launch for Blackjack,” he said in a statement to SpaceNews.

“The satellites will undergo several months of commissioning, followed by orbit raising, and then start demonstrations of interactions involving proliferated satellite architectures,” Forbes said. 

Blue Canyon buses, SEAKR and CACI payloads

The four identical Blackjack satellites were built on commercial Saturn-class buses made by Blue Canyon, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies.

DARPA in 2020 awarded Blue Canyon Technologies a $14.1 million contract to manufacture four satellites. The contract had options worth $99 million for up to 20 satellites. The Saturn-class small satellite buses  can carry payloads of up to 200 kilograms. 

Each Blackjack satellite has a Pit Boss data processing node and a Storm King radio-frequency payload made by SEAKR Engineering, also a Raytheon subsidiary.

There are four laser communications terminals on each satellite, supplied by CACI

“The goal is to demonstrate low-Earth orbit performance on par with current systems in geosynchronous orbit while the payloads meet size, weight, and power constraints of the commercial bus,” said Forbes.

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...