DARPA’s big bet on Blackjack

by

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency foresaw the commercial space boom and recognized an opportunity. Ventures flush with private capital are gearing up to build large constellations of small satellites in low Earth orbit to provide low-latency communications at competitive prices. DARPA was intrigued by what satellite mass production could mean for military space programs.

It was that thinking that drove DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office in 2018 to start Blackjack, an “architecture demonstration” to test the military utility of LEO constellations and mesh networks of low-cost satellites.

Paul ‘Rusty’ Thomas, Blackjack program manager, is determined to prove military satellites can be made faster and cheaper by leveraging commercial supply lines. Credit: DARPA photo

Blackjack’s program manager, Paul “Rusty” Thomas, joined DARPA in 2017 after an extensive career running technology and space programs at SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Iridium’s original satellite manufacturer Motorola.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Thomas said Blackjack has generated excitement because of its potential to disrupt the traditional approaches for building constellations. Now the pressure is on to deliver on its stated goal: deploy 20 satellites by 2022 to demonstrate that LEO systems can be a more resilient and affordable alternative to the Defense Department’s exquisite and costly geosynchronous satellites.

What have been Blackjack’s major accomplishments so far?

We’ve assembled a great team of industry partners. DARPA to date has selected 15 vendors to supply satellite buses, payloads and Pit Boss, an avionics box and computing node mounted on each Blackjack satellite that provides mission level autonomy. With Pit Boss, the goal is to move a huge amount of processing power to space which will allow us to deliver critical data on short timelines to military users.

Who are the 15 vendors currently working on the program?

We will be evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. None of the companies have produced hardware for Blackjack to this point, though all buses have progressed through a preliminary design review. The payload suppliers are Collins Aerospace, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, SA Photonics, Airbus, Systems & Technology Research, Sky Quantum and L3Harris. We selected Scientific Systems Company, SEAKR Engineering and BAE Systems to develop Pit Boss concepts. We expect to select a new vendor soon to do satellite integration.

Is DARPA buying commercial buses off the line, or do companies have to make modifications to accommodate military payloads?

Nobody is building a production line of commoditized buses that can handle all kinds of military payloads. Airbus has a wonderful production line in Florida we visited. They’re going to start producing 30 satellites a month for OneWeb. But you can’t take one off the end of the line and bolt a military payload to it. They are working with us on how they would take out some of the commercial comms elements so we have more size, weight and power available for the military payload. We will take a commoditized bus as close as we can and keep modifications to a minimum.

Have you started integrating buses with payloads?

That’s the next phase we’ll be starting soon. Industry proposals for the satellite integration work are being evaluated and we’re currently in source selection. We’ll be taking various types of payloads — for communications, missile defense, PNT [positioning, navigation, timing] and ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] — and evaluate how each payload could fly without having to redesign the bus. We want buses that will not require redesign when a new payload shows up, which gets us to the rapid integration model we’re going after. We will likely want a small bus for a dedicated mission, and also a medium or larger bus where we can put two or three payloads and host a Pit Boss data processor.

What is the timeline to complete satellite integration and begin the deployment phase?

First we have to decide what payloads will fly on what satellites. We haven’t completed the design reviews yet. We have great options going forward into the next phase. The goal is to have hardware ready in late 2020 so we can decide what will fly. Even though we selected nine payload providers, we won’t fly nine payloads. We’ll do a selection based on military utility and the potential to transition the technology to partners in the Air Force and the Army that are interested in proliferated LEO capabilities. The plan is to launch the first two satellites in 2021 to begin testing. We also have to develop a concept of operations. The final piece will be the deployment of 18 additional satellites. We may deploy two constellations of 10 in different orbits.

I want to get two satellites up early to make sure I retire the risk of the commercial buses with military payloads, make sure everything is working, hardware-wise, radiation-wise, make sure that I don’t have a blind sensor for instance. Then we will launch 18 more in 2022 to get 20 satellites.

When will you select launch providers?

Our intent is to release a Broad Area Announcement for launch services in the near future. We’ll take as close to a commercial approach as we can. We are open to both dedicated launch and rideshare. Our satellites are not cubesats but they’re not huge. Buses range from well over 100 kilograms to several hundred kilograms. For the first two satellites we might go with a rideshare, but we may decide to buy a dedicated rocket for the remaining 18 satellites. The first two may go to a different inclination than optimal, but that’s OK. This is just a demo of a future operational capability.

You mentioned the Air Force and the Army are partners in the Blackjack program. What about the Space Development Agency?

They are all transition partners. The Air Force and the Army will help move Blackjack technologies into operational systems. SDA is planning to develop space layers for communications and tracking. We are demonstrating key elements of those. I think SDA is going to take off and run with many of those pieces. How that is done is beyond my scope.

DARPA requested $25 million for Blackjack for 2020. The House Armed Services Committee recommended a $20 million increase above the request. Why do you think Congress has shown such enthusiasm for the program?

I can’t comment on funding. Since we started Blackjack, the question that gets asked the most is what problem are we trying to solve. What we are doing is a different space architecture with a reduced integration timeline so we can deploy capabilities quickly. The current military ecosystem relies on exquisite GEO satellites. They perform exceptionally well but come with high cost and lengthy development cycles. The challenge is to keep pace with evolving threats. Our current systems are the targets of weapons that cost far less than the satellites. Our approach is to show we can build constellations that allow for one- or two-year refresh cycles using spacecraft that cost less than $10 million apiece, including launch. Blackjack is the first step in developing that vision.

Who came up with the name ‘Blackjack’?

I didn’t name the program. A member of the front office staff for the Tactical Technology Office compared proliferated LEO to the way surveillance domes in a casino ceiling create a mesh network to alert the casino managers to bad actors and provide constant deterrence. After I came aboard, I created Pit Boss, the autonomous control element in Blackjack, as it plays a similar role to a pit boss in a casino by exerting command and control over a given zone.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.