Loft Orbital satellite to carry experiment for DARPA’s Blackjack program

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Loft Orbital is working under a contract from SSCI, which received a DARPA contract to fly a demonstration of the Blackjack Pit Boss mission system.

WASHINGTON — Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite — scheduled to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission — will carry a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency experiment for the Blackjack program.

Loft Orbital, a San Francisco-based startup, is working under a contract from Scientific Systems Company Inc. Boston-based SSCI received a DARPA contract to fly a demonstration of the Blackjack Pit Boss mission system.

DARPA started the Blackjack program in 2018 to demonstrate the utility of low-cost small satellites in low Earth orbit for military operations.

Blackjack program manager Rusty Thomas told SpaceNews on July 9 that the upcoming Pit Boss experiment, dubbed Sagittarius A*, is projected to launch in early 2021. The experiment is a “risk reduction” mission in preparation for the production of the main Blackjack satellites planned for launch in late 2021.

Pit Boss is the mission management system that will make it possible for Blackjack satellites to autonomously acquire, process and distribute information to users. SSCI developed the Pit Boss software for this demonstration and is a subcontractor to SEAKR Engineering, based in Centennial, Colorado. SEAKR was selected by DARPA as the Pit Boss prime contractor.

Alex Greenberg, co-founder and chief operating officer of Loft Orbital, said this will be the company’s first Defense Department mission. Loft Orbital buys satellite buses and leases space onboard the buses to customers who don’t want to fly their own satellites. It also books the launches.

The YAM-3 satellite — a small spacecraft about the size of a washing machine — is being built by LeoStella, a joint venture of Thales Alenia Space and the earth observation company BlackSky.

The Blackjack mission on YAM-3 (short for Yet Another Mission) will be flying with other payloads from multiple customers on a SpaceX SSO Rideshare launch, Greenberg told SpaceNews.

The Pit Boss demonstration has two payloads. One is the flight computer that runs the SSCI autonomy software. The second is a commercial optical imaging sensor that will search for targets in the open ocean. The data will be fed to the flight computer for on-board analysis and processing. The Pit Boss’ artificial intelligence will process the data and retask the satellite as it searches for targets.

Greenberg said planning for the YAM-3 mission began long before Loft Orbital got the contract from SSCI for the DARPA experiment. “They realized that this was the fastest way to get hardware in space,” he said.

What DARPA is doing in the Blackjack program — buying commodity satellites and payloads, and developing the middle layer to interface the two sides — “that’s our business model too,” Greenberg said. “We buy buses from different vendors, we develop the onboard interface technology to be fully payload agnostic.”