DARPA Awards Telesat Contract to Investigate LEO Systems

Telesat will undertake investigations under a DARPA contract to study the use of commercial low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations to meet the needs of the Department of Defense. According to Telesat, the investigations may lead to greater use of commercial LEO constellations for the DoD’s future space-based communications. Through its investment in a planned 120-satellite LEO constellation, Telesat has emerged as a leader in that market, leading to the DARPA contract.

Under the investigation, Telesat will evaluate a scenario in which the DoD operates its own network of LEO communications satellites, which would be integrated into Telesat’s LEO constellation via laser-based communications links. Telesat expects that these investigations may lead to the DoD using Telesat’s LEO system for its global broadband connectivity needs.

The award to Telesat was made by DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO) under its Blackjack program. DARPA initiated the Blackjack program in 2017 to demonstrate new types of satellite system architectures to provide global persistence, low latency communications, and rapid technology refresh. The goal of the program is to leverage commercial space technologies including commoditized spacecraft buses, ground infrastructure, and user segments at unprecedented costs. Bids were received under the program in June 2018 and now awards are beginning to be made.

For decades, the DoD relies on large, expensive geosynchronous satellites for communications. These systems are highly protected, a valuable asset during a global war against peers. However, the bandwidth capability of these satellites is limited and most communications sent over satellites does not require such a high level of protection. In order to meet the growing data needs on the modern battlefield, the DoD has begun to explore alternative architectures. Blackjack, and its proposal to use commercial LEO constellations, is one such program.