DARPA to begin launching Blackjack satellites in late 2020

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Three payloads will fly to low Earth orbit in late 2020 and early 2021 to start building an optically meshed network.

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency plans to launch the first experimental satellites of the Blackjack program in late 2020 and early 2021, the agency said May 11.

DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office started the Blackjack program in 2018 to show the military utility of low Earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of low-cost satellites.

As many as 20 satellites will be launched by 2022.

The first demonstration, Mandrake 1, is a cubesat that will carry supercomputer processing chips. The second, Mandrake 2, is a pair of small satellites that will carry optical inter-satellite links for broadband data. DARPA says these could form the basis of future optically meshed networks in LEO.

A third payload scheduled to launch is called Wildcard, a software-defined radio that will experiment with links from LEO to tactical radios.

The launch dates and vehicles have not yet been decided.

Blackjack program manager Paul “Rusty” Thomas said Mandrake 1 and 2 will fly in separate launches, and there’s a possibility that Mandrake 2 and Wildcard could be on the same launch. “The program will firm up the dates once there is a clearer picture of how COVID-19 could affect upcoming launch schedules,” Thomas said in a statement.

One of the goals of the Blackjack program is to build satellites at lower cost than traditional military spacecraft by using sensors that can be mass produced to fit on many different buses from different providers for less than $2 million per payload.

“We focused first on buses and payloads, then the autonomous mission management system, which we call Pit Boss,” said Thomas. The first two military payloads will be integrated and launched in mid to late 2021, and the remainder of the constellation in 2022.

“We need to show the constellations can move the right amount of data and support the data fusion and command and control we want from Pit Boss,” Thomas said. “From there, we will start building the actual hardware. By late next spring, we will have hardware and then spend next summer focused on satellite-level qualification for launch readiness in late 2021.”

DARPA is evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat, all of which have cleared a preliminary design review. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. SEAKR is the prime contractor for the Pit Boss on-orbit autonomy system. The agency also awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin as the satellite integrator.

Several sensor payloads are under consideration, including overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) from Collins Aerospace and Raytheon; radio frequency systems from Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, and Systems & Technology Research; position, navigation, and timing from Northrop Grumman; optical inter-satellite links from SA Photonics; and electro-optical infrared from L3Harris.

The program recently awarded a Small Business Innovation Research contract to Augustus Aerospace to work on an Army Space and Missile Defense Command payload.