KEY POINTS

  • The Pentagon is developing tiny spy satellites
  • Project Blackjack’s satellites will replace more expensive, larger satellites
  • The first mesh networks of satellites will launch in 2021

The Pentagon’s research and development department is working on Project Blackjack designed to develop autonomous fleets of tiny spy satellites. The mesh networks of small satellites will replace the current fleets of large U.S. military satellites at a lower cost.

According to Popular Mechanics, the idea of mesh networks of inexpensive, tiny satellites is one of the most innovative new space tech. The satellite networks can cover the entire planet or just a region. The small satellites will communicate with one another and ground stations. By bouncing data from one another, the information travels on a shorter overall distance. The autonomous mesh satellite networks are also self-adjusting, due to which, even if one satellite goes down, the system can maintain coverage.

Pentagon’s Project Blackjack follows space tech development in the civilian space sector. SpaceX’s Starlink, for instance, plans to launch thousands of low-cost communications satellites into low-Earth orbit in order to provide internet access to any corner of the world. A large number of Starlink satellites ensures data coverage is maintained if one satellite goes down.

The United States has previously relied on a small number of sophisticated and expensive military satellites. The Pentagon’s fleet of communication, navigation, position and spy satellites are cost-effective and efficient in peacetime but they could become vulnerable targets in case of a military conflict. Major military powers such as China or Russia may try to destroy the U.S. satellites in the event of war.

According to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Project Blackjack mesh satellite networks are designed to provide a backup in the event that existing satellites are disabled or destroyed during wartime. The cheaper, smaller satellites would have the ability to perform the same tasks as the U.S. military satellites currently in use while being more difficult to shoot down. A complementary Pentagon program called Pit Boss will create an autonomous system to manage the mesh satellite networks. The constant flow of data from Project Blackjack satellites to troops in the field will be ensured without the need for human supervision.

The first Blackjack satellites are scheduled to launch in 2021. For the initial demonstration, several types of sensor payloads, including navigation, position, timing, satellite to satellite communication links, radiofrequency systems to send data to ground troops, as well as infrared and electro-optical/infrared spy satellites are being taken into consideration. Mandrake 1, the first test, will be a CubeSat equipped with supercomputer processing chips. Mandrake 2 will be a pair of communication satellites able of broadband speeds.

The Pentagon is developing autonomous fleets of tiny spy satellites The Pentagon is developing autonomous fleets of tiny spy satellites Photo: DARPA