Blockchain and Space: The Companies

Credit: SpaceChain.

Welcome back to the third and final installment of SpaceQ’s “blockchain and space” series. In this installment we look at the some of the companies looking to bring blockchain technology to space.

In our first part, we looked at delved into blockchain technology. Blockchain is the technological foundation of the famous “Bitcoin” digital currency, one of a variety of so-called “cryptocurrencies”. It uses cryptography and digital networking to create a database—usually a ledger of transactions—that is distributed, transparent, and immutable.

Blockchain was originally created as the underlying Bitcoin by its inventor, the pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto”. Now blockchain tech is being explored as the foundation for a lot of other applications: quickly clearing interbank and real estate transactions, secure data transmission, and “smart contracts” that ensure payment for goods and services, “Smart contracts” can even be used as a programming platform to run programs and applications. This is what the Ethereum blockchain is based on.

In our second part, we looked at how blockchain may spread into the space sector. Blockchain users and advocates are already excited about the possibility of currencies that are completely beyond terrestrial Internet controls. Other space players, however, are already exploring how blockchain can help them to make operations like earth observation and even air traffic management, more secure and efficient.

In this final installment, we’re going to be looking at specific organizations and firms that are bringing blockchain into space. Appropriately for a worldwide industry, there are organizations exploring these tools across a wide variety of regions. It is clearly still very early days, but there some interesting things going on.

SpaceChain leading the way

The most prominent player in space-based blockchain and cryptocurrency is Singapore-based SpaceChain. SpaceChain was created in 2017 by Zheng Zuo, Jeff Garzik and funder Tim Draper as a way to “bring blockchain technology to outer space”. Draper has previously invested in SpaceX and Tesla.

SpaceChain aims to resolve a perceived issue with space commercialization: that “space technology is traditionally closed off and highly guarded behind government doors”. While progress is being made, the fact remains that access to space-based infrastructure is incredibly expensive. SpaceChain’s founders believe that this is impeding innovative ideas for space-based networking and computing applications and software, and that it may even detrimental to space exploration.

Blockchain can help. Due to the decentralization of blockchain tech, SpaceChain believes that they can help resolve this issue. They are launching a series of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites which will serve as blockchain nodes, creating a reliable spaceborne platform that (in theory) cannot be disrupted, censored, hacked or controlled. And, instead of simply handling transactions, the network will be focused on exploiting the blockchain for a variety of purpose: data processing, transmission, application development and even space-based data storage. The SpaceChain satellite network provides these capabilities using its own open-source operating system (SpaceChain OS) — allowing for application development, testing, and deployment — built on top of Ethereum’s Smart Contract platform.

Their goals are quite a bit more ambitious than simply setting up a blockchain and running apps. In an interview in Via Satellite, Zuo saying that they plan to “build a multi-vendor, multi-jurisdiction, decentralized satellite network”, built on an open-source standard for hardware, software, and communication protocols. They are also exploring opportunities to provide space-based security. A release from earlier this year after the launch of their second node had Garzik saying that one SpaceChain application, multi-signature cold wallet services, “opens up brand new possibilities in space security models”.

Zuo’s interview echoed this focus on security as a reason for developing SpaceChain. He notes that “if a satellite network is built by a single company, then the risk of cyber threats is dependent on this company’s ability to secure the network. On the other hand, if we can build this multi-vendor, multi-jurisdiction, decentralized satellite network, the risk will be distributed.”

These are still early days, though, and things are moving at a moderate pace. Their first node, launched in early 2018, was a simple Raspberry Pi, and only a single node has been launched since then. This may not be the right pace for the swift-moving tech sector: and especially in the blockchain and cryptocurrency world, where a few years can feel like a lifetime. Certainly cryptocurrency has had a tumultuous time over the last few years.

The volatility of the crypto market may be another potential issue for SpaceChain. While they do have funders, their core business model is the sale of “tokens” used to run applications on the network. In all meaningful ways, this is like a crypto-coin … but will people be willing to buy crypto tokens in 2019, considering the issues with Bitcoin, Ethereum, and others? It’s all somewhat uncertain.

The ESA, NASA, and blockchain

Not all organizations exploring blockchain share SpaceChain’s libertarian ethos. In fact, both the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA are exploring blockchain. As mentioned in part 2, their incentive structure is very different: they already have the resources and networks to communicate in space, and wield enormous power due to their investments in space-based communications capacity. They could easily see blockchain as a threat to that investment.

They aren’t. Both organizations are exploring the ways in which blockchain (and other distributed ledger technology) can benefit their roles as national or supranational space agencies.

In a presentation from 2017, ESA’s Torben David produced a presentation on “leveraging blockchain for ESA’s success”. It addressed the potential threats from blockchain, but also the ways that blockchain can be used to benefit ESA’s operations. It can make procurement faster and more reliable, with a stronger audit trail. Blockchain could aid in information management, ensuring traceability of changes to data are always traceable and securing access rights. And David also said that it could allow for immutable, tamper-proof ESA votes and immediate vote processing.

While none of these applications apply to space hardware, they show how blockchain may make space agencies more effective.

In America, NASA is investigating several potential applications. Researcher Jin Wei from the University of Akron is analyzing the potential for creating a “resilient networking and computing paradigm” using the Ethereum blockchain that will decentralize information storage and algorithmic decision-making. This could make their space-based equipment more resilient in situations where they cannot easily rely on Earth-based computing and storage resources.

Dan Mandl also provided a presentation for NASA on using blockchain that echoes the earlier ESA presentation, where blockchains can be used to help NASA manage its data more effectively and decentralize algorithmic and automated decision-making. And, last week, we already revealed NASA’s investigation of using blockchain for securing the new ADS-B air traffic control system.

In both regions (Europe and America), however, neither space institution is the whole story. As mentioned in part 2, ESA is looking to provide support and funding for private companies that are looking to innovate in space using blockchain, like Flying Carpet, which is working to use blockchain and AI to “generate insights from geospatial data” by creating a decentralized network of machine learning models and human classifiers.

In Europe, there are also fascinating projects like Homeport, from SAT-1 in Bulgaria. Like SpaceChain, SAT-1 focuses on large networks of inexpensive LEO CubeSat satellites to create independent communications networks. They plan to use blockchain to streamline and decentralize the satellite receiver network, and increase downlink opportunities by reducing data delivery requirements.

In the United States, Nexus is attempting to create a “multidimensional blockchain” that is partially connected via the Vector Space Systems LEO satellite network, and XYO Networks is launching their EtherX satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, which is the first step in their plan to create a blockchain-based and decentralized location infrastructure that will reduce reliance on the American-controlled Global Positioning System.

Blockstream and the Hunt for Satoshi’s Treasure

In Canada, the most notable player is Blockstream. Blockstream was a comparatively early entrant in the “blockchain in space” community, and in many respects, it is one of the simplest.

While Blockstream itself is a multi-product, multifunction cryptocurrency-focused service and platform provider, their key product in this case is the “Blockstream Satellite network”. Unlike SpaceChain, Blockstream’s network is focused on only one task: it broadcasts the Bitcoin blockchain around the world, 24/7, for free. Blockstream intends to use these satellites to ensure that national and supranational entities cannot cut off Bitcoin transactions.

Blockstream’s network of geosynchronous satellites is intended to reduce these risks by partially decoupling the Bitcoin network from the Internet. Bitcoin blocks are received from Blockstream’s dedicated satellite uplinks and are broadcasted through the satellite to anyone with (in Blockstream’s words) “a small satellite antenna and an inexpensive USB receiver”. Their coverage covers nearly the entire world, with satellites reaching most of the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia.

But, in a surprising twist, the Blockstream satellites have become far more important: they’re now the hub for a million-dollar contest. Bitcoin Magazine had the story, about how an anonymous message (later revealed to be from a group that includes Primitive Ventures’ Eric Meltzer) created a challenge called “Satoshi’s Treasure,” which will test hunters’ “resolve, courage, intelligence, and savvy”.

Yes, Blockstream became an instrumental part in a 21st century treasure hunt with a million-dollar prize; a real-life version of Ready Player One. It uses a cryptographic key-sharing technique that split the bitcoin stash’s private key into a thousand small pieces hidden behind a series of logic puzzles. Any player or group of player that solves at least 400 of the puzzles gets the private key that provides access to the Bitcoin wallet. CoinDesk suggests that a surprising number of youth and teenagers are eagerly hunting the treasure, and nobody knows who will win.

(Though it may well be that hackers crack the whole thing.)

Blockchain and space: a viable project?

We return to the central question: why put blockchain in space? Is there more to it than just Bitcoin on satellites?

The answer is “no, but sometimes yes.”

Blockstream is showing that people are interested in simple cross-border Bitcoin broadcasting. Even with the controversy and volatility of “crypto”, Blockstream appears to be successful in its attempts to ensure that crypto-based payment settlements can be made more viable in the face of national or supranational governments opposition.

Many other blockchain schemes are quite similar to Blockstream, even if they’re focused on competing cryptocurrencies. Some will succeed, but most will fail, thanks to the fierce competition and underlying volatility of cryptocurrencies. Some dubious and unsupported “blockchain in space” announcements, not linked here, could have been crude attempts at value manipulation. Skepticism and caution are clearly warranted.

But “Bitcoin without borders” is only a start.

National and regional space agencies are at least paying attention to blockchains as a solution to both perennial issues like procurement, and novel issues like resilient and decentralized space-based AI and algorithms. Companies like SpaceChain are trying to move beyond the world of ledgers and wallets, creating opportunities for developers to gain access to space-based computing and space-based applications, creating LEO microsat networks that can serve as a decentralized and parallelized computing platform. Even if these networks are slower and less powerful than terrestrial networks, blockchain’s immutability, decentralization and transparency will help make them more resilient and reliable.

It’s still too early to say how this will all work out. Companies like Blockstream and Spacechain have established-enough of a business model that it’s safe to assume that they’ll still be present when the market matures. Beyond that, it’s the wild west out there (up there?), and it’s reasonable to assume that the landscape will be unrecognizable in five years, let alone ten.

Will blockchain spread to space? Will new applications arise that aren’t chained to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Will cryptocurrency transactions become more thoroughly space-based as terrestrial governments’ opinions harden? Will other players weigh in? At best, it’s a very speculative bet. You could take a chance on it, or you could wait for things to stabilize.

In the meantime, either way, you could always search for Satoshi’s Treasure.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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