DARPA launches first, and now only, 'Blackjack' satellites

Carried about a SpaceX Transporter-8 rideshare, DARPA's planned "Blackjack" satellite constellation delivers its first, and now only, four satellites into LEO.
Christopher McFadden
Two communications satellites.
Two communications satellites.


On Monday (12th June), The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) successfully launched and deployed four experimental satellites into low-Earth orbit. Launched as part of a SpaceX Transporter-8 rideshare, the satellites are part of a larger initiative to act as a proof-of-concept of using commercial partners to facilitate military applications in space. The "Blackjack" project started in 2017 and was envisaged to be a 20-satellite constellation, each with different mission payloads.

Under "Blackjack," a constellation of 20 satellites capable of optical communication was to be launched into low-earth orbit and serve as a network mesh in space. This network was originally intended to be government-owned and serve to connect the U.S. military to its bases, sensors, and weapons across the world.

However, the scope of "Blackjack" has since been rolled back to only four satellites at this stage. In 2017, DARPA envisioned the "Blackjack" project as a way to also demonstrate to the Pentagon how it could leverage the commercial space revolution. However, recent events have surpassed this vision, as the Space Development Agency of the US Space Force is now working on deploying an LEO constellation for the Defense Department.

According to the "Blackjack" program manager, Stephen Forbes, the initial launch of "Blackjack" was scheduled for 2021 but faced delays due to supply chain issues. As of now, DARPA does not plan on including any additional satellites in the experiment beyond the four that were launched on Monday.

“At this time, this is our only planned launch for Blackjack,” he said to SpaceNews. “The satellites will undergo several months of commissioning, followed by orbit raising, and then start demonstrations of interactions involving proliferated satellite architectures,” Forbes added. 

The four "Blackjack" satellites, which are identical, were constructed using commercial Saturn-class buses created by Blue Canyon, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies. Blue Canyon Technologies was granted a $14.1 million contract by DARPA in 2020 to produce four satellites, with the option to manufacture up to 20 satellites for a total value of $99 million. The small satellite buses of Saturn-class can accommodate payloads weighing up to 441 pounds (200 kilograms).

Each satellite of the "Blackjack" system includes a Pit Boss data processing node and a Storm King radio-frequency payload, both manufactured by SEAKR Engineering, another subsidiary of Raytheon. Additionally, there are four laser communication terminals on each satellite, provided by CACI International.

“The goal is to demonstrate low-Earth orbit performance on par with current systems in geosynchronous orbit while the payloads meet size, weight, and power constraints of the commercial bus,” added Forbes.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board