The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will launch its first Blackjack satellite into orbit later this year, with more to follow in 2021.

With Blackjack, DARPA seeks to demonstrate the value of low earth orbit satellites for the Department of Defense. The small satellites will carry advanced technologies that will demonstrate space-based mesh networks and constellation autonomy.

“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 agency said in a May 11 statement.

The first experimental satellite will be Mandrake 1, a cubesat hosting supercomputer processing chips. Mandrake 2 will use two cubesats to demonstrate the possibility of a space-based mesh network by sharing data over optical intersatellite links. Wildcard, another payload, will experiment with links to tactical radios from orbit over a software-defined radio. A fourth unnamed experiment will host a number of advanced thirty party algorithms to test out on orbit.

“It's important that we get the design right,” said Blackjack Program Manager Paul “Rusty” Thomas. “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.”

The agency says it is evaluating buses from Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat, all of which have progressed through preliminary design review. A final bus selection will be made in 2020.

SEAKR recently announced that it had been selected as the primary contractor for Pit Boss, the autonomous system behind Blackjack. Lockheed Martin will integrate the satellites.

DARPA is also looking at various payloads to be incorporated into the Blackjack constellation. Contenders include an overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensor from Collins Aerospace and Raytheon, radio frequency systems from Northrop Grumman, Trident and Systems and Technology Research, a position, navigation, and timing payload from Northrop Grumman, optical inter-satellite links from SA Photonics, and an electro-optical/infrared sensor from L3Harris.

Over the next few months the agency will begin running simulations with the various payloads.

“We need to show the constellations can move the right amount of data and support the data fusion and command and control we want from Pit Boss,” Thomas said. “From there, we will start building the actual hardware. By late next spring, we will have hardware and then spend next summer focused on satellite-level qualification for launch readiness in late 2021.”

The demonstration flights will be conducted in partnership with the U.S. Space Force and the Space Development Agency, an organization stood up in March 2019 to develop a new national security space architecture composed of hundreds of satellites in low earth orbit. SDA leadership has stated previously that it will build off the lessons learned from Blackjack.

All of the flights will be rideshares.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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