Blockchain in space: small step or giant leap?

August 23, 2018
Chris Wheal

Blockchain could help man to boldly go where no man has gone before. Space agencies such as NASA that rely on dwindling government funding are no longer the only players in the space race. A number of private start-ups have launched in the past decade and blockchain technology could be a crucial part of this new era of space exploration.

rocket launches into space

Blockchain technology could be a crucial part of this new era of space exploration

With Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently launching the most powerful rocket in the world and Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, successfully landing its reusable rocket this year, space tourism is no longer a billionaire’s boardroom boast.

Yet despite innovations in technology, spacecraft launches – whether it is launching a satellite or sending supplies to the International Space Station – still cost a staggering amount of money.

Blockchain technology could create the cost efficiencies in the complicated, time-consuming process to allow voyages to become even more competitive in the future.

This is one of the reasons why NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been investigating ways to utilise blockchain technologies both on the ground and in deep space missions.

Space tourism and reusable rockets

Bezos famously said that using rockets costing more than $60m once is comparable to someone using a 747 to fly across the country and then throwing the plane away. This is why his company and SpaceX have spent over $1bn trying to develop and implement reusable technology.

This rise of reusable rockets is seen by many experts as a game changer and a “revolution on par with the invention of the sail or the steam engine.”

A report by the World Economic Forum claims that the use of refurbished rockets is going to open up space exploration to more entities. This will allow for continued democratization of space and other technological advances could make a global space-centred sharing economy a real possibility.

It said: “For the next revolution in commerce, governance and social interaction we need to look up – about 100 miles up, into the low Earth orbit. There, falling prices for communication and earth monitoring satellites, along with blockchain-enabled security, will make everything from broadband communication to crop monitoring available not just to technology elites, but to the most remote farm, village or machine.

“However, community or civic organizations must know the data they receive is reliable and that their ownership stake in a satellite (or the service it provides) is secure and they will get proper payment.”

The report added that low-cost, distributed trust provided by the blockchain distributed ledger can provide these assurances through a series of decentral and encrypted technologies.

Futuristic look at passenger plane in space

Space tourism is no longer a billionaire’s boardroom boast.

NASA and blockchain

In a presentation titled “Bitcoin, Blockchains and Efficient Distributed Spacecraft Mission Control,” NASA said blockchain technology could have useful applications in distributed spacecraft missions involving multiple elements. Artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technologies could be further integrated to make space-based sensor networks more efficient and responsive.

An example is a new $330,000 NASA grant that supports work to develop autonomous spacecraft that could make more decisions without human intervention using blockchain technology. One example could be enabling spacecraft to dodge space debris.

Principal investigator Jin Wei Kocsis, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at The University of Akron in Ohio, said: “I hope to develop technology that can recognize environmental threats and avoid them, as well as complete a number of tasks automatically.

NASA building in Florida

NASA said blockchain technology could have useful applications in distributed spacecraft missions

“In this project, the Ethereum blockchain technology will be exploited to develop a decentralized, secure, and cognitive networking and computing infrastructure for deep space exploration.”

If proven, Wei Kocsis’ early-stage research would be especially useful in deep-space environments, where spacecraft communicating back to Earth must currently wait for hours for a response. Instead, her work would enable the spacecraft to perform tasks using blockchain technology.

Blockchain technology in supply chains

To launch a rocket into space, pilots and technicians must secure the links in a supply chain of many companies and contractors from sourcing of raw materials such as titanium or aluminium to spacesuits.

For companies to build and launch rockets most efficiently, the distance between their supply-chain links needs to be short, their business interactions have to be transparent and the tracking of the moving parts must be optimized and available in real time.

Rudy Brathwaite, co-founder and chief information officer of SupplyBloc Inc, said blockchain is indispensable to strengthening this supply chain. He said: “Blockchain — an encrypted ledger that publicly tracks transactions — offers suppliers and manufacturers the ability to record and manage transactions in digital databases that are secure and decentralized, which means they don’t rely on third parties like banks.

“By leaving unnecessary mediators out of the supply chain not only saves money, but also helps to speed up production.”

Smart contracts

According to Brathwaite, blockchain also allows businesses to create self-executing contracts known as “smart contracts” and to use cryptocurrency such as bitcoin. These elements help with supply chains by making interactions between links more transparent, faster and cost-efficient, and by vastly improving the ability to track products from A to B.

In September 2017, ESA presented a report called “Distributed Ledger Technology: Leveraging Blockchain for ESA’s Success” highlighting the benefits of smart contracts in logistics. Other benefits were swifter and precise payments, real-time access to data changes, seamless updates to access rights and an immutable voting system.

The ESA paper focused on blockchain technology applications to administrative processes but the World Economic Forum said blockchain based smart contracts can be applied to satellites and systems that need their services.

It said: “This would allow companies to autonomously negotiate and complete transactions based on predetermined criteria such as the price a customer is willing to pay for a certain image and how quickly they need it. Users, satellite owners and even the satellites themselves could dynamically create new services to pay for their launching, insurance, and other costs.”

Man landing on the moon

Blockchain technology will help space mission run to schedule

Crowdfunding future space activities

A number of companies have also sprung up that promise to use the latest blockchain technology to launch a crowdfunding network aimed at creating citizen-powered space travel.

Space Decentral was founded by international Space Cooperative, and in its whitepaper it stated that it will design space missions collaboratively, share research for peer review, crowdsource citizen science efforts, and crowdfund projects that lack national budgets.

One of its first projects is called Coral and is led by four former NASA employees. Its primary aim is to facilitate 3D printing on the lunar surface to build infrastructure for settlers.

SpaceChain, in contrast, is building the world’s first open-source satellite network that runs on blockchain nodes. It claims to provide “an opensource platform for innovators around the world to maintain an opportunity to choose and execute projects that fit the blockchain-based philosophy to accelerate outer space development.”

Other start-ups such as Nexus and Blockstream have also launched blockchain satellite projects.

Life, but not as we know it

Only time will tell the impact of the billionaire space race on colonising the cosmos, but blockchain based technology will have a role to play going forward at least in blockchain-enabled smart contracts.

The ability to precisely track and manage the creation and movement of rocket parts will also be invaluable and will keep space missions running to schedule.

And who knows maybe in the future, as SpaceChain predicts, people will become an integral part of the space revolution through its community and network built to advance the progression of space technologies as a collective and unified whole.

Post written by Chris Wheal
Chris Wheal is editor of OpenLedger's news and features service. An award-wining business journalists himself, he runs a team of freelance journalists from across the UK and north America.

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