DARPA asks industry to develop small, secure military satellites to operate in low-Earth orbit

U.S. military researchers are asking for industry’s help in developing 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.

May 1st, 2018
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ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. military researchers are asking for industry’s help in developing 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., issued a broad agency announcement (HR001118S0032) 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 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.

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.

The Blackjack program seeks to develop 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 will emphasize a commoditized bus and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades, based on a ‘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 could 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:

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

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.

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.

The program has three phases: defining bus and payload requirements; developing 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.

Companies interested should submit full proposals no later than 6 June 2018 to the DARPA BAA submission website at https://baa.darpa.mil. E-mail questions or concerns to DARPA at HR001118S0032@darpa.mil.

More information is online at https://www.fbo.gov/spg/ODA/DARPA/CMO/HR001118S0032/listing.html.

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