Blackjack is a DARPA program that will replace the old National Security Space (NSS) satellite infrastructure in GEO with a mesh grid operating in LEO made entirely out of commercial, easily interchangeable, over-the-counter products. DARPA intends to use this program to provide the United States Department of Defense with a consistent military network for sensing, communication, and data transport.
DARPA’s objective for the Blackjack program is to demonstrate a distributed low-earth orbit constellation that provides global persistent coverage with a total cost of ownership that is less than a single exquisite military satellite. It is envisioned that the Blackjack satellites would operate near, or be proliferated within, a commercial constellation with communications and operations provided by the commercial constellation. The Blackjack satellites will not be an integral or required element of the commercial constellation and will operate independently.
The operational (long-term) design reference mission is for a tens-of-satellites (60 – 200) constellation operating between 500km and 1,300km altitude with one or more payloads on each satellite. Each satellite is envisioned to cost less than $6M including its launch cost. A single operations center will cover all government satellites/payloads irrespective of the payload(s) on each satellite, and the constellation will be capable of operating without the operations center for 30 days. The operations center will be manned by no more than two people whose primary function is setting constellation level priorities. Blackjack payload data processing will be performed on-orbit without the assistance of ground data processing.
The reference demonstration mission for this BAA is based on 20 spacecraft in two planes with one or more payloads on each satellite. The payload(s) may differ between satellites. The 20 spacecraft demonstration mission will simulate global constant custody in 3000-4000 km wide theaters for multiple hours per day to enable theater-wide autonomous operations.
A non-exhaustive list of mission areas of interest are missile detection; position, navigation, and timing (PNT) services; military protected communications; radar; electro-optic and infrared imaging for tactical ISR; and radio frequency collection. Additionally, adding a physical payload is not the only approach to adding new functionality; a mission capability could be achieved by adding software (i.e. “mass-less payload”) to allow a secondary use of the primary payload. Offerors should also consider opportunities for coherent and non-coherent signal processing from multiple satellites/payloads. Of interest are data products that are uniquely enabled by the Blackjack architecture, which is supported by proliferated payloads, common timing signals, bi-directional data links, on board computational capabilities, and the proliferated LEO constellation architecture. Some examples of signal processing enabled by Blackjack are coherent change detection, radar processing techniques, and distributed array processing.
- Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR)/Missile Detection/Warning Mission Area - DARPA is interested in payloads that provide military utility against current and emerging threats.
- Position, Navigation, and Timing - DARPA is interested in payloads to provide Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), and Communications in contested environments. The system is expected to provide position, velocity, clock, and communications. Both one-to-one and one-to-many approaches are of interest. The system is expected to include any user terminals and their acquisition strategy (including whether you can use the existing, modify existing, or require new terminals). The reference one-to-one architecture provides <0.3m range accuracy, <0.6m cross-range accuracy, <1nsec timing, and >1Mbps communications at 40,000km using a photon-counting laser communication link with bistatic 2-cm apertures. Tactical Communications - DARPA is interested in payloads to provide new or augmented communications capability for use in contested environments as it relates to satellite communications. The system is expected to include any user terminals and their acquisition strategy (including whether you can use the existing, modify existing, or require new terminals). Reference missions include service to LEO spacecraft, dismounted troops, networked weapons, tactical communication to theater users, combined PNT and communications, interference detection and geolocation, and high frequency applications. Massless Secondary Payloads - DARPA is interested in payloads that reuse other payloads with software, processing, or concept of operations changes. It is envisioned that an additional functionality or secondary payload might be enabled via software alone, i.e. a timing waveform added to a communications payload could provide a GPS like functionality, or a GPS Radio Occultation capability could be possible with a suitable GPS space navigation bus subsystem. For both examples, the performance would depend on how good the bus system clock performs to allow higher precision timing measurements via the communications payload or the ability of the GPS system to measure GPS carrier phase and determine ionospheric phase delays (dispersion & refraction) to infer ionosphere electron density. These new missions are enabled by having sufficient performance or headroom in subsystem performance like pointing stability and knowledge, or clock stability and accuracy, or better quality GPS receivers to allow new functionality or performance.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) solicited [HR001118S0032 - April 19, 2018] innovative proposals in the following technical area(s): low cost space payloads and/or commoditized satellite buses. Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) payloads that provide military utility from a distributed low earth orbit (LEO) constellation and in commoditized satellite buses capable of hosting military payloads assuming their primary commercial payloads for user terminal connectivity are not installed. Specifically excluded is research that results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice of small quantities of exquisite highvalue spacecraft.
National Security Space (NSS) assets, critical to warfighting capabilities, are traditionally placed in geosynchronous orbit to deliver persistent overhead access to any point on the globe. In the increasingly contested space environment, these exquisite, costly, and monolithic systems have become vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed and their long development schedules preclude orbital systems that are responsive to new threats. The goal of the Blackjack program is to develop and demonstrate the critical technical elements for building a global high-speed network backbone in low earth orbit (LEO) that enables highly networked, resilient, and persistent DoD payloads that provide infinite over the horizon sensing, signals, and communication, and hold the ground, surface, and air domains in global constant custody.
Historically, DoD satellites have been custom-designed to specific mission sets with lengthy design and/or enhancement cycles at a high cost per spacecraft. The evolution of commercial space has led to the design of LEO constellations intended for broadband internet service, of which the design and manufacturing could offer economies of scale previously unavailable in the space arena. DARPA is interested in leveraging these advances in order to demonstrate military utility, emphasizing a commoditized bus and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades. The Blackjack architecture is founded on the concept that ‘good enough’ payloads can be optimized around an ability to fly on more than one type of bus. Commoditized buses can be specified via mechanical, electrical, software, and mesh network (both satellite to satellite, and satellite to ground) interface control to provide a platform for dozens or hundreds of different types of proliferated LEO payloads.
The Blackjack program has three primary objectives designed to achieve the overall program goal. Objective 1 is to develop payload and mission-level autonomy software and demonstrate autonomous orbital operations including on-orbit distributed decision processors. This will be achieved through autonomous maintenance of spacecraft orbit, spacecraft health, constellation configuration, and the network architecture. Payloads will be developed to operate autonomously with on-orbit data processing, and the system will autonomously perform shared tasks on-orbit based on high-level system directives. Objective 2 is to develop and implement advanced commercial manufacturing for military payloads and the spacecraft bus. Blackjack will develop high-rate manufacturing using COTS-like parts, reduced screening and acceptance testing for individual spacecraft, and reduced expectations for spacecraft life. Mission assurance will be achieved at the constellation level enabling individually expendable low-cost spacecraft nodes. Objective 3 is to demonstrate payloads in LEO to augment NSS. The driver will be to show LEO performance that is on par with current GEO systems with the spacecraft combined bus, payload(s), and launch costs under $6M per orbital node while the payloads meet size, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints of the commercial bus.
The Blackjack program is an architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight, and cost spacecraft nodes, and no single type or size of bus or mission/payload type will be optimal for this demonstration. The program will select payload performers from two to six mission areas to complete PDR/CDR level design and development and ensure the overall Blackjack architecture is viable for multiple payload types. Rolling down-selects of one or two primary payloads that will launch on the demonstration satellites will occur during the course of the program.
The program will consider commoditized buses that have existing or in-development production lines that can accommodate a wide range of military payload types without redesign or retooling of the production line for each payload, recognizing that optimal payload performance probably will not be achieved without a specified bus/payload integration early in the design cycle. Once selected, the buses will be expected to accommodate both the Blackjack payloads and multiple types of payloads for potential follow on DOD programs without redesign of the bus. Blackjack will demonstrate that ‘good enough’ payloads in LEO can perform military missions, augment existing programs, and, over longer time scales than this demonstration, potentially provide mission level results that are on par or better than currently deployed exquisite space systems.
The payloads in the Blackjack spacecraft will be designed in a reciprocal fashion to the commodity buses in that no direct consideration of a specific bus will be used in the initial design. Selection of a payload to fly on a specific bus will not occur until after Payload PDR. Payload providers will be provided draft interface documents at program kick-off that define the interfaces and environments of each bus under consideration for flight. Payloads will be capable of modular attachment to more than one size or type of Blackjack commoditized bus, and designed with simplicity of mechanical, electrical, and network interfaces as a key requirement.
Optical payloads will endure more jitter and less bus-level pointing accuracy than is standard on custom optical spacecraft, and RF payloads will endure higher levels of bus-driven electromagnetic interference at certain frequencies than is standard on custom RF spacecraft. To reduce integration risk among various payloads and buses, Blackjack will develop an avionics unit consisting of a high speed processor and encryption devices that every Blackjack payload will connect to directly for network and electrical interface.
This unit, named the ‘Pit Boss’ will fly on each Blackjack spacecraft in order to provide a common electrical interface to each payload, provide mission level autonomy functions, enable on-orbit edge computing, manage communication between Blackjack on-orbit nodes and ground users, provide CMD/TLM link to the bus, and encrypt payload data before it is transmitted through the commercial network. The payload mechanical interface will not be to the Pit Boss but direct to a custom payload deck that will provide a flat surface for location of inserts or other attach hardware and will provide typical LEO nadir facing view factors for thermal radiation of excess heat along with limited plate thermal conductance. Every Blackjack orbital node 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 capable of operating in autonomous modes for over 24 hours providing space to tactical mission effects for DOD users.
DARPA envisions five separate categories of contracts across multiple opportunities; commoditized bus, payload, autonomy/integration, launch, and operations. This BAA is focused on the first two categories: payloads (Track A) and commoditized buses (Track B). Offerors may propose multiple concepts to Track A – payloads and/or a single concept to Track B – commoditized buses, and teaming is encouraged. Offerors should submit a single proposal per proposer DUNS number containing all concepts. Each concept should be separable and severable from any other proposed concepts including a separate Statement of Work and Cost Summary for each concept.
Offerors may not propose solutions that require integration of a specific bus with a specific payload, and no combined bus/payload concept will be accepted. Each bus and payload concept proposed must include its own cost table. DARPA includes a notional constellation in Section I.C, however, offerors should include bus/payload mission vignettes to highlight the military utility of their proposed concept and are free to use a low earth orbit constellation that differs from the DARPA notional constellation. Proposals that result in a public/private partnership will be considered.
The program is divided into three phases. Phase 1 will focus on the research and the exploration for the development of the system requirements and preliminary designs. This first phase will include two tracks: Track A for Military Payload development and Track B for Commoditized Spacecraft Bus. DARPA anticipates selecting up to six teams for Track A (Payload) and up to two teams for Track B (Bus) during Phase 1. It is anticipated that up to four Track A performers and two Track B performers will be selected to continue from Phase 1. For Phase 3, up to three Track A performers will be selected to continue from Phase 2 along with one Track B performer.
Blackjack aimed to have all satellite buses selected by the end of 2020 and have all satellites in LEO by 2021. DARPA limited the budget per satellite to $6 million because modern satellites cost almost $1 billion to design, build, operate, and maintain. DARPA aims to operate on that limited budget by outsourcing the project to the private sector.
In 2018, DARPA awarded Telesat a $550,000 contract to study the implementation of satellite buses in the Blackjack program. European satellite manufacturer Airbus Defense and Space received a $2.9 million contract. Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado, received a contract for $1.5 million. Trident Systems Inc. was given a $1.5 million contract for satellite payloads.
In May 2020, DARPA announced that three Blackjack satellites will be launched in late 2020: Mandrake 1, Mandrake 2, and Wildcard. DARPA says that the Mandrake satellites could form the basis of a future LEO optical mesh network. Wildcard is a software-defined radio satellite which will perform experiments with radio links in LEO.
In June 2020, DARPA announced that it had awarded a $14.1 million contract to Blue Canyon Technologies to develop satellite buses for the constellation. It also announced that it had awarded a $16.3 million contract to SA Photonics to support Blackjack payloads.
In October 2020, DARPA awarded Telesat U.S. Services, LLC a contract for the development and demonstration of commercial LEO spacecraft buses in a constellation network that highlights robust low-latency communication. Telesat U.S. must deliver two spacecraft buses to DARPA within the year in order to test OISL communications and demonstrate OISL interoperability with different government hardware. The current contract stands at $18.3 million, but if more spacecraft are procured from Telesat LEO and all options are exercised, the contract can have a total value of up to $175.6 million.
Telesat has selected Mynaric to supply multiple units of its flagship CONDOR optical inter-satellite link terminals to DARPA’s Blackjack Track B program. The Blackjack System Integrator plans to receive the terminals in mid-2021 with satellites scheduled to launch later in the same year. Telesat will test the capabilities of laser communication products from different vendors as part of the DARPA Blackjack program.
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