The US military is looking to the commercial space industry to deliver the small and inexpensive satellites to replace its current ageing and vulnerable system, and it is looking to the private sector for help.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a long history of involvement in the development of satellite systems. In 1959, ARPA, as it was then known, was instrumental in the development of the Transit (also called NavSat) satellite positioning system, a predecessor to today’s widely adopted GPS.

Today, the US military is dependent on large, complex satellites in geostationary earth orbits for a variety of communication and information-gathering functions. However, with China, Russia, and others progressing rapidly with their own military space programmes, it has become clear that the these large satellites have become vulnerable

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast meeting last month, DARPA director, Steven Walker, said DARPA predicted this issue a number of years ago, and had explained to senior leadership all the way to the White House that “space was changing, that things were getting very contested and that the US needed some programs to counter it.”

His view is that the US military should move away from the current expensive geostationary satellite system and instead focus future efforts on creating constellations of dozens or hundreds of small satellites in low earth orbit, which would prove much more difficult for enemies to destroy.

The other benefit of using cheaper and lighter smaller satellites is that it gives the US military the chance to leverage the competition in the private sector, a plan that DARPA has dubbed “Blackjack“.

The emergence of companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX in recent years has resulted in the cost of launching small payloads into space plummet to under $4,000 per kg with SpaceX’s reusable Falcon Heavy rocket. However, launch cost is only one part of the puzzle, and DARPA’s Blackjack strategy also calls on the private sector for further innovations in the production of “low cost, mass-reproducible, space payloads and commoditized satellite buses” that offer “economies of scale previously unavailable”.

The agency envisions the total cost of manufacturing and launching these new-breed of satellites into orbit as under $6 million. This competitive pricing would offer them the ability to launch a sufficient number to create constellations to provide global persistent coverage for less than the cost of a single vulnerable geostationary satellite today.


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