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

Nov. 1, 2018
U.S. military researchers are looking to Blue Canyon Technologies in Boulder, Colo., to help develop a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that not only are able to operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO), but also that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies.

ARLINGTON, Va. —U.S. military researchers are looking to Blue Canyon Technologies in Boulder, Colo., to help develop a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that not only are able to operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO), but also that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., announced a $1.5 million contract to Blue Canyon last month for the Blackjack program to develop SWaP-optimized military communications and surveillance satellites designed to operate in LEO.

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

Military satellites are critical to U.S. warfighting capabilities. Traditionally they are placed in GEO to deliver persistent overhead access to any point on the globe.

Blue Canyon Technologies is helping develop a new generation of military communications and reconnaissance satellites optimized for low size, weight, and power consumption (SWaP).

Yet in the increasingly contested space environment, these costly and monolithic systems are vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed. Moreover, their long development schedules make it difficult or impossible to respond quickly to new threats.

Blue Canyon specializes in turnkey small satellite solutions for surveillance and other applications, including nanosatellites, microsatellites, and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) satellite payloads, including spacecraft buses and custom ground software.

The company has expertise in precision pointing platforms based on high-performance attitude determination and control components. Blue Canyon has developed low-cost high-reliability spacecraft systems and components to enable academic, commercial, and government small satellite applications. The company’s spacecraft and subsystems are supporting LEO, geosynchronous orbit (GEO), lunar, and interplanetary missions.

For the first phase of the Blackjack program, Blue Canyon will define bus and payload requirements. Subsequent phases will develop bus and payloads for a two satellite on-orbit demonstration; and demonstrating a two-plane system in low-Earth orbit for six months.

A future Blackjack demonstration constellation will involve 20 spacecraft in two planes with one or more payloads on each satellite.

The DARPA Blackjack program is developing enabling technologies for a global high-speed network backbone in LEO that enables networked, resilient, and persistent military payloads that provide infinite over-the-horizon sensing, signals, and communications capabilities.

Historically, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) satellites have been custom-designed, with lengthy and expensive design and upgrade cycles. The evolution of commercial space, however, has led to LEO broadband Internet communications satellites that could offer attractive economies of scale.

The Blackjack program emphasizes a commoditized bus and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades, based on ‘good enough’ payloads optimized for more than one type of bus.

Commoditized satellite buses based on open-architecture electrical, software, and mesh network interface control are expected to provide a way for dozens or hundreds of different types of military satellite payloads to operate in low-Earth orbit, DARPA officials say.

The Blackjack program has three primary objectives:

  • payload and mission-level autonomy software with on-orbit distributed decision processors that can operate autonomously with on-board data processing, and perform shared tasks on-orbit;

  • advanced commercial manufacturing for military payloads and the spacecraft bus, including high-rate manufacturing using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)-like parts, reduced screening and acceptance testing for individual spacecraft, and reduced expectations for spacecraft life; and

  • satellite payloads in LEO that operate on par with current GEO systems with the spacecraft at costs of less than $6 million per satellite.

To reduce integration risk, Blackjack is developing 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 interfaces.

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

Every Blackjack satellite will consist of one commoditized bus capable of broadband-rate global communications to other nodes, one Pit Boss control unit, and one or more military payloads that can operate autonomously for more than 24 hours.

The goal is to develop a 60-to-200-satellite constellation operating at altitudes of between 310.7 miles and 807.8 miles above the Earth’s surface. One operations center will cover all government satellites and payloads, and the constellation will be able to operate without the operations center for 30 days. Blackjack payload data processing will be performed on-orbit without the assistance of ground data processing.

For more information contact Blue Canyon Technologies online at, or DARPA at

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