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The ​Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency expects to hand off the Blackjack program to the Air Force as it matures. Artist rendering courtesy of DARPA.

Airbus announced this week it received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract to develop a satellite bus for the Blackjack program, which aims to field a mass-produced, resilient network of commercial satellites equipped with military sensors in low-earth orbit.

“The bus drives each satellite by generating power, controlling attitude, providing propulsion, transmitting spacecraft telemetry, and providing general payload accommodation including mounting locations for the military sensors,” Airbus said in a release. “Constellations of inexpensive satellites permit wide scale disaggregated architectures enhancing survivability across many different mission areas.”

The company is partnering with Florida-based OneWeb Satellites to manufacture modular constellations. 

As commercial companies plan to build low-earth satellite constellations to provide broadband internet service, the military wants to piggyback on those efforts to affordably bolster its targeting and communications capabilities. DARPA expects to hand off the Blackjack program to the Air Force as it matures.

Airbus is one of four companies reported to have won a Blackjack contract. Last November, the Canadian firm Telesat said it would study for DARPA whether the Pentagon should use the company’s satellite buses, as well as the advantages of having future military spacecraft link to Telesat’s LEO constellation.

In a Nov. 27 release, Telesat noted it is working with Leidos on the study contract. Two teams—one a partnership between Thales Alenia Space and Maxar Technologies, the other led by Airbus—are also designing LEO systems for Telesat.

Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado announced the same month it received $1.5 million to design a micro-satellite.

“Subsequent phases will cover detailed design up through a [critical design review], construction of two flight spacecraft, launch, and demonstration of the first two spacecraft for six months, and finally build and launch 18 additional spacecraft to complete a 20-spacecraft constellation demonstration by 2021,” Blue Canyon said in a Nov. 26 release.

Virginia-based Trident Systems also received a $1.5 million Blackjack contract Jan. 8, according to Federal Business Opportunities.

DARPA plans to spend $117.5 million on as many as eight bus and payload contractors over the course of the three-phase program, the agency said last year.​​