The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is planning to launch the first experimental satellites of the Blackjack programme in late 2020 and early 2021, the agency said.
The Blackjack programme in 2018 to show the military utility of low Earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of low-cost satellites.
As many as 20 satellites will be launched by 2022.
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.
With Blackjack, DARPA seeks to demonstrate the value of low earth orbit satellites for the US Department of Defense.
“It’s important that we get the design right,” said Paul Thomas, the programme manager for Blackjack. “We focussed 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.”
Blackjack aims to demonstrate 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.
Over the next few months, the programme will run simulations to test payloads in virtual constellations of all types of missions. The goal is to show interoperability between the commoditized buses and the various payloads being considered.