Two companies join project to design SWaP-C-optimized communications and surveillance satellites

Jan. 9, 2019
ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are asking two more companies to 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 asking two more companies to 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., are asking Trident Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va., and Airbus Defense and Space Inc. in Herndon, Va., to develop SWaP-optimized military communications and surveillance satellites designed to operate in LEO.

Trident Systems and Airbus Defense join Blue Canyon Technologies in Boulder, Colo., on the DARPA Blackjack initiative to develop low-cost space payloads and commoditized satellite buses with low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) with similar capabilities ast today's military communications that operate at geosynchronous orbit (GEO), but at a fraction of the cost.

Trident Systems won a $1.5 million contract on 8 Jan. 2019; Airbus Defense won a $2.9 million contract on 19 Nov. 2018; and Blue Canyon won a $1.5 million contract on 12 Oct. 2018.

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.

Related: DARPA asks industry to develop small, secure military satellites to operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO)

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.

Airbus Defense and Space specializes in military and commercial satellite communications (SATCOM) and networking systems. Trident Systems specializes in radar and RF systems, integrated C4ISR systems, and assured collaboration.

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.

For the first phase of the Blackjack program, Airbus, Trident, and 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.

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

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 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 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:

Related: Blue Canyon Technologies to design SWaP-C-optimized communications and surveillance satellites

-- 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;

-- 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 interface.

Related: DARPA wants real-time CubeSat communications to link micro-satellite constellations

Not only will Pit Boss provide a common electrical interface to each payload, but it also will provide mission level autonomy, 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.

For more information contact Trident Systems online at, Airbus Defense and Space at, Blue Canyon Technologies at, or DARPA at

Ready to make a purchase? Search the Military & Aerospace Electronics Buyer's Guide for companies, new products, press releases, and videos

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!