• DARPA’s Blackjack program wilDARPA’s Blackjack program will leverage commercial low Earth orbit solutions, says Paul “Rusty” Thomas, Blackjack program manager. Concept graphic courtesy of DARPAl leverage commercial low Earth orbit solutions, says Paul “Rusty” Thomas, Blackjack program manager. Credit: Concept graphic courtesy of DARPA
     DARPA’s Blackjack program wilDARPA’s Blackjack program will leverage commercial low Earth orbit solutions, says Paul “Rusty” Thomas, Blackjack program manager. Concept graphic courtesy of DARPAl leverage commercial low Earth orbit solutions, says Paul “Rusty” Thomas, Blackjack program manager. Credit: Concept graphic courtesy of DARPA

DARPA Doubles Down on Blackjack

October 11, 2019
By Kimberly Underwood
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The agency’s LEO satellite demonstration project aims to create a more resilient, less expensive, agnostic spacecraft architecture.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeing initial success from its Blackjack program, according to Paul “Rusty” Thomas, program manager. The research agency is developing a subset of a constellation, 20 low Earth orbit (LEO) globe-to-globe satellites, to demonstrate a new way of building out space systems.

“We are looking at how we might do space architecture differently,” said Thomas. “We want to limit the integration time, so we can actually get to the point where a payload might not even know what bus it is going to go on, and you can actually think of the payload as the mission.”

They are relying on commercial solutions to gain technical advantage—for example, by employing commercially modified buses to enable a wide range of military missions.

“We are seeing what the commercial folks are doing, in terms of moving the ball forward,” Thomas stated. “And that those buses are fairly agnostic for types of various types payloads you might put on, such as OPIR [overhead persistent infrared] missile defense, PNT [positioning, navigation and timing], radio frequency and communication. We already have 10 payloads in phase two and we are having a lot of success. We are not seeing the typical technical down-select, or self-selection that I would have expected.”

The Blackjack effort is meant as a future alternative to traditional U.S. space systems in geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) used for national security. Those custom and expensive geostationary satellites, if attacked or damaged by adversaries, are not easily replaceable.

Thomas spoke at AFCEA DC’s October Space luncheon event on October 10, which also featured Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Stephen Kitay; Michael Schlacter, acting chief, Integration Cell, Space Development Agency; and moderator Francis Rose, the host of Government Matters.

The speakers emphasized the growing risks to U.S. space-based assets and the steps the Defense Department is taking to shore up the nation's role and defenses. The Blackjack program, in particular, would offer a way to build out large numbers of low cost, low flying spacecraft quickly that provide global connectivity—instead of building exquisite systems.

“Protected assets in space are no longer as protected as we think they are,” Thomas noted. “And we are trying to show that you can add resiliency, constant custody, global mesh [communication] and various types of sensors.”

Over the next two to three years, the program manager’s objective is develop the satellite bus, the payload platform and the foundations of the system “and get it up and running.” DARPA will also leverage other commercial capabilities, such as autonomous systems and powerful edge computing to create a more resilient space system. With developed autonomy software, the agency intends to “demonstrate autonomous orbital operations including on-orbit distributed decision processors,” for advanced satellite management, according to the agency.

The aim of that level of autonomy is to lessen the burden of satellite operations. “We really want to find a way so that we don’t have to have a team of people on every spacecraft,” Thomas clarified. “We want to have a team of people on a constellation.” He suggested it could be a small team of two people that could operate a constellation of 80 to 100 satellites.

That autonomy piece will require powerful edge processing from the commercial sector, where DARPA could put “teraflops of processing capability in space using GPUs [graphics processing units] and FPGA [field programmable gate arrays] processing systems and software to provide collaborative mission autonomy,” Thomas said.

The program manager envisions the Blackjack demonstration project as a platform that enables other space-based technologies. “We are trying to build an architecture here,” he emphasized. “We are trying to build a bus-agnostic approach and payload-agnostic approach, and an autonomy layer that can talk into the cloud and put all this together. And there are a lot of springboards of technology that various agencies can use in the future.”

For example, the Blackjack program will develop interface controls or definition for all of the commercially modified buses, Thomas said.

In that way, the Blackjack program will not transit through DARPA as projects normally do, he noted. “There is not a handoff of Blackjack, the program manager clarified. “I see Blackjack as helping to inform, but not drive, each of those different development efforts. The 20 satellites that we put up will not be operational until folks who come on and add to that prototype to make it an operational system. [Stakeholders have to] decide that this is important and put requirements down and actually fund this into a fully operational system.”

In the meantime, researchers at DARPA will continue to work on the structure of the groundbreaking project. “We won’t achieve true plug-and-play with Blackjack, but we will move the needle in that direction,” Thomas offered. “DARPA is trying to set the table for all the future architectures.”

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