DARPA to Begin New Effort to Build Military Constellations in Low-Earth Orbit


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to develop military space capabilities in low-Earth orbit. Credit: Darpa
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency next week will start reviewing bids from space industry vendors as it sets out to prove that there are cheaper, nimbler alternatives to traditional military satellites.

By Sandra Erwin | SPACE.com

DARPA last year launched the project known as Blackjack with the goal to develop a low Earth orbit constellation to provide global persistent coverage for military operations. The closing date for bids is June 6.

Laying a path for the military to transition from huge satellites in geostationary Earth orbit to constellations of smaller and less expensive platforms in LEO has been a longtime pursuit at DARPA. That goal recently took on greater urgency as the military weighs replacing existing constellations that could be targeted by enemies with more resilient systems that would be easier to reconstitute if they came under electronic or kinetic attack. [Military Space: The Spacecraft, Weapons and Tech]

Global surveillance and communications would be the obvious missions for Blackjack-funded prototype constellations, but there have been talks about broadening the scope to more complex assignments such as space-based battle management. DARPA will take on the initial development and engineering work for the next three years and later could turn over prototype systems to the U.S. Air Force for further testing and possibly operational use.

The basic formula will be to attach military-unique sensors and payloads to commercial satellite buses. DARPA plans to award $117.5 million in contracts over three phases to up to eight bus or payload suppliers. According to DARPA’s solicitation, there will be additional contract awards down the road for autonomy hardware and software, launch services, ground systems and constellation flight operations.

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