SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said last Friday that the spacecraft manufacturer wants to land its Starship on the moon within three years, and carry out a manned mission soon after. This would mark the first major launch from a privately owned space company. The private spaceflight industry is growing fast; estimated to be worth $1 trillion by 2040. But as it grows, some see an opportunity for blockchain technology to shake up a status quo that’s dominated by nation states and large companies.
Just this month, Consensys (which funds an editorially independent Decrypt) announced plans to track space debris using the Ethereum blockchain. And last month, SpaceChain received funding from the European Space Agency to build a blockchain-based satellite network. Their claims are as ambitious—and vague—as here on Earth: blockchain will “decentralize space endeavors” (Consensys), or build a ‘‘community-based space platform (SpaceChain).
Though the use cases of blockchain platforms are often ill-defined, the re-introduction of fabled phrases like “decentralization” or “tamper-proof ledger” into space-bound conversations provides an early insight into problems some have with the commercialisation of space.
As blockchain developer Ondrej Sarnecký wrote in a blog post, the space industry “revolves around the biggest “players” [governments and large private companies] and it’s very hard for anybody else to chip in, mostly because of the enormous operating costs of such projects.” Enter blockchain, the technology feared by middle-managers worldwide. Blockchain, wrote Sarnecký, can reduce the cost of entry in the space industry, making it accessible to the likes you and me.
Spacebit, a “decentralized space company”, plans to do just that. Per Spacebit’s website, “Our main goal is to democratise access to space by tokenizing all of our commercial space missions around the Earth, the Moon and beyond.”
Spacebit even promises to do even better than SpaceX—for a fraction of the price—by using blockchain to send an unmanned lunar rover to the Moon by 2021. Last month, it announced plans for a spider-shaped lunar rover to roam the Moon, in partnership with US-based space company Astrobotic. Astrobotic is launching its own Peregrine lunar lander spacecraft at the same time, and Spacebit’s machine will tag along, one of 17 payloads aboard the ship.
The mission is small: to move ten meters from Astrobotic’s spaceship, then use sensors to map a 3D model of its environment, and beam a video back down to Earth. A moderator for Spacebit’s Facebook page tells Decrypt that data will be recorded using blockchain technology. “And in the future for swarm applications.”
Spacebit is also working on tokenizing space communications: as spaceships and satellites beam ever more data down to us Earthlings, Spacebit says that “ground stations” might become overworked. Instead, Spacebit suggests we use blockchain to distribute the work worldwide, “tokenizing idle time to create a more liquid market for new and existing customers.” To accomplish this, it’s been working with Goonhilly, a UK based satellite company, on a tokenisation scheme.
Despite all of space’s, er, space, it turns out that there’s too much traffic near Earth. Too many satellites orbit our planet, shitposting messages around the world, and the risk is that they’ll crash into one another, clogging up the spacelanes with debris. How’s blockchain managed to inveigle itself into such a niche? Some are concerned that governmental bodies tracking satellite movements aren’t dependable enough.
Consensys Space’s new project, TruSat, announced last week, is one potential solution. It bills itself as a “citizen-powered, open source system for creating a globally-accessible, trusted record of satellite orbital positions.” The idea is that satellites are often visible to the naked eye, and if TruSat can convince enough people on Earth upload pictures to its app, then its Ethereum-based blockchain system can work out the locations of satellites as they spin around the Earth.
Armed with such information, TruSat becomes a valuable resource to those trying to prevent satellite collisions. In an accompanying press release, Professor Moriba Jah of the University of Texas in Austin, an astrodynamicist and creator of the ASTRIAGraph system for space traffic monitoring, said that the platform will encourage accountability from satellite owners in the absence of official space police.
“Consider how adherence to rules of the road varies when no one is watching—on a deserted highway in the middle of the night, versus when there is a conspicuous speed camera or police car,” said Jah. “The deterrent effect of both space laws and standards will be greatly enhanced by a global public eyewitness capability.
Although the locations of space objects are tracked, TruSat claims that there is currently no independent body to monitor space traffic, and that national agencies only provide a subset of the information they collect to the public. “We must eliminate the possibility of any single source of information to bias or uniquely determine our conclusions and opinions about what and how objects behave in space,” said Jah. “And governments don’t share the underlying sensor data or algorithms that would enable consumers of the data to draw their own conclusions. Evidence, at its strongest, must allow for independently corroborated conclusions.”
Blockchains in space
Just as blockchain hopes to improve the space industry, the space industry can also improve blockchain. SpaceChain hopes to build the first “open-source blockchain-based satellite network”, one that remains “secure and immutable” through “proven blockchain cryptography”. SpaceChain launched a couple of blockchain nodes running on Qtum into space back in 2018, when it piggybacked onto a larger satellite. Last month, it received 60,000 Euros from the European Space Agency to continue its work. Its plan is to make blockchains more secure by putting some of the nodes in space, where, ostensibly, states are unable to shut them down. You can even track where the nodes are on SpaceChain’s website.
Even if these projects amount to nothing, they’ve caught the eye of industry leaders. IBM announced this year it is working with Cloud Constellation Corporation on blockchain prototypes to “optimize the logistics and supply chain for the space tech industry”, and a NASA presentation on blockchain’s potential impact on space travel noted it could “document digital rights and therefore promote sharing of data”. Blockchain, a technology based upon principles of democracy and anti-authoritarianism, is itself a valid critique of the space industry thus far. And if you’re not convinced, you can always buy tokenized shares from SpaceX.