Military researchers approach industry to integrate LEO affordable commercial satellite buses and payloads

May 28, 2019
U.S. military researchers ask industry to integrate affordable commercial communications and reconnaissance satellite buses and payloads for Blackjack.

ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are asking industry to find ways to mix and match commercial satellite buses and military satellite communications (SATCOM) and reconnaissance payloads as late in the design process as possible in the Blackjack project to develop low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites based on commercial satellite technologies.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., issued a solicitation on Friday (HR001119S0015) for the Blackjack Satellite Integration project.

The DARPA Blackjack program seeks to orbit a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies.

Blackjack seeks to develop low-cost space payloads and commoditized satellite buses with low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) with similar capabilities to today’s military communications that operate at geosynchronous orbit (GEO), but at a fraction of the cost.

DARPA released the original Blackjack solicitation in April 2018, and now seeks an approach that supports pairing any of the Blackjack commodity buses with any Blackjack payload, as late as possible in the design process.

Related: DARPA Blackjack to develop small, secure military satellites for low-Earth orbit

DARPA officials say they expect contractors to enable the Blackjack architecture to integrate several types of commercial satellite buses easily with a wide range of militarily payloads.

DARPA officials are interested in not only in SATCOM payloads, but also those that can detect, identify, and track advanced missile threats; provide positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT); and provide space-based surface moving target indication.

Each pairing of a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) satellite bus and one or more payloads will define a node in a Blackjack constellation layer. Pairing different buses and payloads late in the satellite design process could enable U.S. military leaders to deploy and integrate small and inexpensive communications and reconnaissance satellites quickly in LEO without modifying the architecture.

DARPA officials say they envision increasing the number of LEO satellites in orbit from 20, which could cover a geographic region for several hours, to a full constellations of hundreds of satellites that could cover the entire Earth.

Related: Blue Canyon Technologies to design SWaP-C-optimized military satellites

Blackjack will capitalize on open-architecture standards and system controls to enable easy insertion of third-party software and hardware, including space-based payloads and hosted applications, communications equipment, and surface-based user devices and software.

The Blackjack demonstration program will investigate blending several satellite layers and payloads into a unified data collection and distribution architecture.

These layers and satellite payloads should include overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensors; PNT; Global Positioning System (GPS) augmentation; RF and optical tactical communications; tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance payloads; and all-weather multi-domain geolocation, identification, characterization, and tracking.

To reduce integration risk, Blackjack will develop an avionics unit called Pit Boss for each spacecraft with high-speed processor and encryption devices that will function as a common network and electrical interface.

Related: DARPA to brief industry on developing artificial intelligence and cyber security for military satellites

Not only will Pit Boss provide a common electrical interface to each payload, but it also will provide mission level autonomy functions, enable on-orbit edge computing, manage communication between Blackjack satellites and ground users, provide a command and telemetry link to the bus, and encrypt payload data.

Constellation-level and node-level command and control, health monitoring and remediation, inter- and intra-satellite data management, and on-orbit resource scheduling will come from the Pit Boss on-orbit cloud network. Pit Boss hardware and software will go aboard each Blackjack satellite node.

Blackjack’s 20-satellite demonstration will emulate a 90-satellite functional layer. A 20-satellite combination of two orbital planes of 10 satellites each will fly in 2021 or 2022 to demonstrate low-cost sensor capabilities, real-time on-orbit payload processing, low-latency global connectivity using a commercial data transport layer, and Pit Boss autonomy.

Within the Blackjack program, DARPA envisions five separate categories of contracts for commoditized buses; payloads; constellation-level autonomy; node integration; and launch and operations. DARPA already has released solicitations for the acquisition of low-cost, commoditized bus and payload capabilities, as well as for Pit Boss autonomy. This solicitation focuses on satellite integration.

Related: Two companies join project to design SWaP-C-optimized satellite payloads

Satellite systems integrators will work together with Blackjack bus, payload, and Pit Boss providers to develop approaches for integrating program hardware and software, while preserving the flexibility to incorporate new elements in the future.

DARPA expects the satellite integrator to interact with the Pit Boss, bus, and payload performers as equal participants, to develop and define the interfaces. DARPA officials say they want proposers to suggest several ways to integrate buses and payloads.

Companies interested should submit abstracts no later than 11 June 2019, and full proposals no later than 26 July 2019. Upload abstracts and proposals to the DARPA BAA Website at

Email questions or concerns to [email protected]. More information is online at

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