DARPA Rushes To Develop "Constellation Of Low-Earth Orbit Spy Satellites" Before Next Space Wars

The Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), will start assessing bids this week from space industry vendors as it wants to disrupt the military space business.

DARPA last week published a broad agency announcement (HR001118S0032) for the Blackjack program to develop and demonstrate a low earth orbit (LEO) constellation of spy satellites that provides persistent global coverage.

DARPA recently launched the unclassified program known as Blackjack with the intent of developing low-cost space payloads and commoditized satellite buses with low size, weight, power, and cost.

These new low-cost LEO satellites are expected to have much better capabilities compared with current spy satellites that operate at geosynchronous orbit (GEO).

“We have pretty capable small satellites,” DARPA Director Steven Walker told reporters earlier this year. “We have been saying this for 10 years: We want to see a shift to LEO [and] get capabilities in larger constellations.”

According to Military & Aerospace Electronics, 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.”

SpaceNews said DARPA is attempting to make a smooth transition “from huge satellites in GEO to constellations of smaller and less expensive platforms in LEO.” The goal of this transition is to prepare for the coming space wars, as China and Russia have developed capabilities through direct energy weapons and missiles to destroy U.S. spy satellites.

DARPA wants to develop military space capabilities in low-Earth orbit. (Source: SpaceNews) 

DARPA explains how global surveillance and communications would be the primary mission for Blackjack-funded prototype constellations. The initial development and engineering work will shortly start after the winning bid is selected. In about three years time, DARPA could turn over prototype systems to the U.S. Air Force for further examination.

The program aims to attach secret military sensors and unspecified payloads to the low-cost LEO satellite buses. Over the next three phases, DARPA plans to dish out $117.5 million in contracts to eight bus or payload suppliers.

A DARPA spokesman told SpaceNews the agency at this stage of the program could not provide details on Blackjack.

According to DARPA’s solicitation, space industry vendors can offer satellite buses from existing or in-development production lines as long as they can “accommodate a wide range of military payload types without redesign or retooling of the production line for each payload.”

LEO constellation of spy satellites. (Source: SpaceNews)  

Military & Aerospace Electronics said the goal of Blackjack is to develop a constellation of “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.”

At the helm of the Blackjack program is Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. Kennedy has been somewhat outspoken about the military space business and its lack of innovation. He has recently been vocal at defense conferences — criticizing the Pentagon “for embracing a culture of high performance and low risk that is now working against the military because it has given enemies ample time to develop counter-space weapons that could be used to disable or destroy U.S. satellites,” said SpaceNews.

A space war is coming - watch President Trump has he recently pushes the idea of adding ‘Space Force’ to U.S. military.