Conventional satellites have an orbit of about 22,236 miles above Earth’s surface. In comparison, low-Earth satellites are often just 100 to 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface. There are both advantages and disadvantages to low-Earth satellites. Because they have a lower orbit altitude than conventional satellites, they offer faster transmission speeds and a higher level of reliability. On the other hand, their low altitude may interfere with other transmission devices on the ground.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of DARPA’s Blackjack project would be a lower cost. Creating and launching satellites isn’t cheap. According to Quartz, a single launch from a private company costs $100 million to $260 million. The smaller, low-orbit satellites proposed by DARPA could significantly lower this cost in several ways. First, the small size of the satellites allows aerospace companies to launch them using less fuel and resources. Second, the satellites don’t have to launched as far as conventional satellites. For these reasons, DARPA’s Blackjack satellites could save the U.S. military a substantial amount of money.
DARPA is currently accepting proposals for the new micro-sized, low-Earth satellites. Reports indicate that DARPA will select up to eight companies to develop the new satellites. However, it may award additional contractors for related hardware, software, flight control systems and payload launch services.
In its request, DARPA says that companies should submit proposals for satellites that can “accommodate a wide range of military payload types without redesign or retooling of the production line for each payload.”
While DARPA hasn’t officially announced how the Blackjack satellites will be used by the military, it’s safe to assume that they will have two primary functions: communications and surveillance. The satellites would undoubtedly improve the U.S. military’s communications and surveillance capabilities by breaking its dependence on traditional satellite systems.
So, how much will the Blackjack program cost? While the project’s exact costs remain unknown, DARPA says that it will award more than $117 million in contracts to eligible companies.
To learn more about DARPA’s Blackjack project, check out this Wired Magazine article.