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DARPA award value for Blackjack satellite programme draws industry concern

08 August 2018
The Blackjack programme is an architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight, and cost spacecraft nodes. Source: DARPA

Key Points

  • A company executive said DARPA’s Blackjack award value was potentially too low to justify a bid
  • Most of DARPA’s award money is wrapped up in launch costs, leaving little for innovation

The USD117.5 million total award offered by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the first phase of its Blackjack satellite programme was potentially spread among too many companies to make it worthwhile for one company to pursue.

DARPA’s award for Blackjack covers potentially two to eight companies. This means winners could bring home as little as USD14.7 million or as much as USD58.8 million.

DARPA also envisions each Blackjack satellite to cost less than USD6 million, including launch cost. DARPA specifications for Blackjack were roughly 45 kg for payload and 50 kg for the satellite bus. Spaceflight Industries, a commercial rideshare launch provider, offers to bring 100 kg satellites to low earth orbit (LEO), the same orbit as Blackjack, for roughly USD4 million, leaving a few million dollars for companies use at their discretion.

“I think this project is worthwhile and I hope it succeeds,” an industry source told Jane’s on 7 August. “But this seems really thin. How many companies are going to chop this up and how far will it go?”

Pentagon satellites have been historically custom-designed to specific mission sets with lengthy design and/or enhancement cycles at high cost per spacecraft. They have also become targets for adversaries during warfare.

The Blackjack programme is an architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight, and cost spacecraft nodes. DARPA is searching for affordable mass produced payloads and buses that it can refresh at the pace of technology on the ground, according to the Phase 1 broad agency announcement (BAA) posted on Federal Business Opportunities (FBO).

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