DARPA and US Space Force Aim to Mass Produce LEO Spy Satellites

DARPA Blackjack aims to demonstrate spy satellite sensors that are low in size, weight, and power, and that can be mass produced to fit on many different buses from many different providers, for less than $2 million per payload.

They want Low Earth Orbit spy satellite network performance that is on par with current spy satellites systems in geosynchronous orbit with the spacecraft combined bus, payload(s), and launch costs under $6 million per orbital node while the payloads meet size, weight, and power constraints of the commercial bus.

DARPA is evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies, and Telesat, all of which have progressed through preliminary design review. The final selection of buses will happen in 2020. The program recently completed preliminary design review for Pit Boss, selecting SEAKR as the primary performer for the on-orbit autonomy system. The agency also awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin as the satellite integrator.

Several sensor payloads are under consideration for the Blackjack demonstration sub-constellation, including overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) from Collins Aerospace and Raytheon; radio frequency systems from Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Trident, and Systems & Technology Research; position, navigation, and timing from Northrop Grumman; optical inter-satellite links from SA Photonics; and electro-optical/infrared from L3Harris. The program also recently completed a Small Business Innovation Research contract with Augustus Aerospace to work on an Army Space and Missile Defense Command-related payload.

U.S. Space Force and Space Development Agency, DARPA’s Blackjack program is targeting flights to low-Earth orbit (LEO) later this year and 2021. Using a series of small risk reduction satellites, the program aims to demonstrate advanced technology for satellite constellation autonomy and space mesh networks. Blackjack seeks to develop and validate critical elements of global high-speed autonomous networks in LEO, proving a capability that could provide the Department of Defense with highly connected, resilient, and persistent overhead coverage.

The upcoming demonstration flights are all planned as rideshares, catching a ride to LEO on a launch with other missions. The first demonstration, Mandrake 1, is a cubesat that will carry supercomputer processing chips. Mandrake 2 is a pair of small satellites that will carry optical inter-satellite links for broadband data. These could form the basis of future optically meshed computer networks in LEO.

The program also is targeting a risk reduction payload called Wildcard, a software-defined radio that will experiment with links from LEO to tactical radios. A data fusion experiment with the ability to host advanced third party algorithms, known as massless payloads, is intended for an upcoming Loft Orbital mission.

“It’s important that we get the design right,” says Paul “Rusty” Thomas, the program manager for Blackjack. “We focused first on buses and payloads, then the autonomous mission management system, which we call Pit Boss. We anticipate we’ll begin integrating the first two military payloads next summer with launch via rideshare in late 2021, followed by the remainder of the Blackjack demonstration sub-constellation in 2022.”

Here is the plans for Blackjack from 2018, which Nextbigfuture reported in 2018.

Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com

31 thoughts on “DARPA and US Space Force Aim to Mass Produce LEO Spy Satellites”

  1. Ahh, more grist for SpaceX’s mill. Who else could put these in orbit affordably? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just mount cameras on StarLink, and call it a day?
    The advent of the long anticpated panopticon. Look at the bright side, children lost in the forest will be easy to find.

  2. Yeah the orbitals are some serious high ground, the things you could throw down from there and the difficulty you’d have in reaching it are really something else.

  3. they should put up anti-missile systems and end the threat of instant MAD overnight. (but not that of nuclear war, cruise missiles, strategic bombers will and such will remain)

  4. A LEO spy satellite that can resolve a man on the ground from 200 miles and up would be useful for monitoring a battle field that has small groups of terrorists. Any thing smaller wouldn’t be as useful.

  5. While there are no doubt many places where battles have been fought, actual named and recorded battlefields are few and far between.
    Though the next suburb over has one. It may be one of three in the whole country that I can think of.
    Wikipedia actually lists a couple of dozen, but most seem to be more along the lines of either riots, or one sides mass murders, than an actual battle.
    Turns out that 3 of the actual battles are within a casual bike ride of my house.

  6. I remember listening to some astronomer on the radio making the complaint about city lights. How they blocked out vision of the sky, and forced astronomers to go and work in remote locations where there are bugs and cows and rednecks and far from inner city coffee shops.

    Then he made a mistake, he made a disprovable statement. He said that most Australians could not even see the Southern Cross (Australia’s “national constellation”) from where they lived because city lights are blocking out the sky.

    Now at that moment I happened to be at my home in one of the inner Sydney suburbs. Basically about as central as you can get to the problem he described. So I walked outside and looked up: There was the Southern Cross perfectly clearly.

    So he was just making stuff up. Coming up with easily falsifiable rubbish in the hope that his audience wouldn’t check.

    So when I hear astronomers whining about something I no longer take what they say as true without actual proof.

  7. Looks like there will be interoperability of Starlink and Blackjack systems, with the latter being able to commandeer the former in times of national security. Whoever controls the high ground… it is indeed time for the US Space Force.

    Why would SpaceX jeopardize it’s position with the US to mollify China? Imo it is enmeshed with our defense. It could be turned into a modern equivalent of Radio (Internet) Free China. Social engineering, eavesdropping, (hacking?) whether it is wanted or not, via Starlink. It could be envisioned that it would give Tesla, by way of association, quite a bit of leverage in China.

    Low latency to counteract hypersonic weapons? Stronger RF to counteract/reduce jamming? Optical communications for security.

  8. approach makes perfect sense and was inevitable.

    With sufficient numbers of these satellites you could theoretically get a real time look at the whole world. See every plane taking off and track it’s progress to destination.

  9. StarLink inherently bypasses local internet where the Chinese monitoring and controls are embedded. He would have to convert StarLink into a Chinese controlled internet to AVOID giving the Chinese people free access to the global internet. So his simplest option will be to turn it off over China.

    It might be possible for him to run parallel versions of the internet – but he’d have to do one for countries that let people access the global internet, another for China, another for Saudi Arabia, etc, etc. It pretty much breaks the point of having a global internet satellite network.

  10. True, no one company or nation for that matter will really be able to handle it all. SpaceX is a start, but companies like Blue origin and others are still needed along with national space programs to invest in stuff that doesn’t make money in the short term, like exploration, are also still needed. That said the SLS is still a bad joke.

  11. Why suppose that Elon is unwilling to become part of the great firewall of China? Or for that matter not comply with the law in other countries? There is every indication that this isn’t a dilemma at all and SpaceX can and will comply completely with laws and regulations in China and that Starlink will be widely used there. It isn’t part of SpaceX’s mission to be a crusader for unrestricted internet access. In most of the world, the problems with unrestricted internet including disinformation campaigns, cyber security threats and social media promoting the rise of hate and civil violence are bigger political issues than censorship.

  12. Unfortunately it will happen for the same reasons that the world is full of castles. If an advantage can be gained, it will be used by someone. The good part is that, once space travel becomes fully developed and cheaper, there is no reason to stay NEO. I suspect if I lived in the 1600’s I would have raised anchor on the first ship to the New World I could have gotten, even at the cost of indentured servitude for a period of time.

  13. Astronomy – that’s what astronomers said about city light 60 years ago; it forced people to innovate, optimize, and focus on bigger/ remoter/ better. Every technological success has been based on the misery of the current Luddites/ sentimentalists. Next thing, based on overcoming this ‘innovation adversity’: cheap cis-Lunar and dark side astronomy swarms with greater ranges and quantities of sensors and info bandwidth.
    Even though I am sure that each and every person on Earth could have 1000 satellites in space between LEO and GEO without anyone of them being within 10+ miles of each other, who cares? The most important thing in the world is to enlarge the ‘pie’ of opportunity and wealth. If people choose to lead, follow, or shun is their own business. The main enemy is scarcity and ignorance – moderate risk techno-adventurim is the best way.

  14. critical maximum LEO craft density?
    how many craft before we need advanced ‘traffic control’?
    strategy – stuff LEO to GEO areas full of networks, swarms, constellations, and flocks before anyone else can.

  15. Without a plan on how to clean up orbital debris from anti-sat weapons, all such assets will be rendered useless very quickly. It’s too cheap and easy to start a cascading collision event. A suborbital rocket is enough.

  16. I wonder what sorts of restrictions StarLink will have to put on to satisfy China and similar countries. I can’t imagine China suddenly allowing their people to freely access the global internet, nor put up with constantly searching for rogue customer terminals. Nor can I imagine Elon being willing to become part of the Great Firewall of China – but he also isn’t likely to put his Tesla investment at risk by angering the CCP.

    I guess they’ll just turn off the satellite to Earth transceivers when flying over China? Could kind of constrain Starlink service to bordering countries… Too bad about China, heading back to being a closed empire. They had so much promise.

  17. I wonder if it’d be worth putting scanning cameras on Starlink satellites. Even if each scans just a narrow image strip on every pass, the imagery could be pretty up-to-date, without using up a lot of bandwidth.

  18. I’m guessing the Space Force won’t care if they mess up astronomical observations for all time either, unlike Elon Musk, who eventually shaded his satellites so they would streak less against long exposure observations.
    It’s a free-for-all in space, instead of being treated as the limited bandwidth environment it is, where each user should pay rent for the space it occupies.
    There’s going to be conflicts, inevitable collisions, probably internationally as well as intranationally. It may even lead to war.
    Yeah, great idea.

  19. We don’t need a massive militarization of space. And we certainly don’t need another 5,000 satellites from everyone who thinks they are a power in the world.

  20. Low latency in LEO improves tactical timelines

    So they are dealing with spy satellite scenarios where 500 milliseconds is too much lag?

    I’m suspecting it’s more like remote operation of drones rather than simple surveillance.

  21. The SpaceX approach. They want to bring chain production economics to space.

    Satellites, launchers, landers, mass produce everything.

    It makes sense for others to try to replicate it. We tend to not realize yet how much infrastructure the full settlement and utilization of space will require. Including for security and surveillance purposes.


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