Blackjack artist concept. Credit: DARPA

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a $5.8 million contract for satellite integration work for the Blackjack program, the company announced April 24.

Blackjack is a project to deploy a constellation of 20 satellites in low Earth orbit by 2022 and demonstrate that a LEO system can provide global high-speed communications.

Lockheed Martin will define and manage interfaces between Blackjack’s satellite buses, payloads and the so-called Pit Boss autonomous data processor. The work will be performed at the company’s satellite manufacturing plant in Sunnyvale, California.

“This is an exciting new approach to plug-and-play design for LEO,” said Sarah Reeves, vice president of missile defense programs at Lockheed Martin.

With Blackjack, DARPA seeks to demonstrate key technologies needed for a global high-speed network in LEO that the Defense Department can use for broadband communication and can adapt for other purposes like missile defense or navigation.

During the satellite integration phase of the program, multiple types of payloads provided by different vendors will be evaluated for use in communications, missile defense, PNT (positioning, navigation, timing) and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance).

For the Blackjack program, DARPA has selected buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat. Payload suppliers include Collins Aerospace, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Trident, SA Photonics, Airbus, Systems & Technology Research, Sky Quantum and L3Harris. Scientific Systems Company, SEAKR Engineering and BAE Systems are developing Pit Boss concepts.

DARPA wants to make plug-and-play satellites where new payloads can be added without having to redesign the bus. That approach would allow the military to speed up the production and lower the cost of satellites compared to traditional acquisitions of custom-built spacecraft.

The plan is to launch the first two satellites in 2021 and 18 more in 2022.

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...