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U.S. military researchers are looking to develop a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that not only are able to operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO), but also that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies.

In order to materialize these goals, the American military turned to Blue Canyon Technologies for help.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a $1.5 million contract to Blue Canyon towards the end of last month, for the Blackjack program to develop SWaP-optimized military communications and surveillance satellites designed to operate in LEO.

Blackjack seeks to develop low-cost space payloads and commoditized satellite buses with low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) with similar capabilities as today’s military communications that operate at geosynchronous orbit (GEO), but at a fraction of the cost.

Military satellites are traditionally placed in GEO to deliver persistent overhead access to any point on the globe, and are therefore critical to warfighting capabilities.

However, in an increasingly contested space environment, these costly and monolithic systems are vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed.

Additionally, their long development schedules make it difficult or impossible to respond quickly to new threats.

Blue Canyon specializes in turnkey small satellite solutions for surveillance and other space applications, including nanosatellites, microsatellites, and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) satellite payloads, including spacecraft buses and custom ground software.

The company has developed low-cost high-reliability spacecraft systems and components to enable academic, commercial, and government small satellite applications.

For the first phase of the Blackjack program, Blue Canyon will define bus and payload requirements. Subsequent phases will develop bus and payloads for a two satellite on-orbit demonstration; and demonstrating a two-plane system in low-Earth orbit for six months.

A future Blackjack demonstration constellation will involve 20 spacecraft in two planes with one or more payloads on each satellite.

The Blackjack program emphasizes a commoditized bus and low-cost interchangeable payloads with short design cycles and frequent technology upgrades, based on a ‘good enough’ payloads optimized for more than one type of bus.

The goal is to develop a 60-to-200-satellite constellation operating at altitudes of between 500 kilometers and 1,300 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. One operations center will cover all government satellites and payloads, and the constellation will be able to operate without the center for 30 days, according to intelligent-aerospace.com.