In brief

  • A new space race driven by commercial players could come to rely on blockchain technology.
  • Space mining could be one application, with robots negotiating transactions autonomously.
  • With no sovereign authority in space, companies engaged in space activities could use smart contracts to manage inter-operator governance.

With space activities ramping up in anticipation of NASA’s ambitious plans to return to the Moon and eventually Mars, blockchain could have a crucial role to play in the resurgent space industry, experts say.

“If you gaze a little bit into the future and imagine a whole supply chain based on celestial body resources, that’s easy to envision, especially if transactions are negotiated between robots,” said Brian Israel, lecturer of space and blockchain law at UC Berkeley School of Law, in a video interview with Decrypt media partner Forkast.News.

Blockchain and space mining

With NASA’s recent announcement of its search for companies willing to go to the Moon and retrieve samples by 2024, it may not be long before blockchain is involved.

“The ability to conduct in-situ resources utilization (ISRU) will be incredibly important on Mars, which is why we must proceed with alacrity to develop techniques and gain experience with ISRU on the surface of the Moon,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement.

Experts believe that blockchain could assist future activities in space including supply chain security, governance, and more.

“We are going to find things on the Moon that are of immense value or marketable value to businesses and people back here on Earth,” retired Canadia astronaut Chris Hadfield told Forkast.News in a recent interview. “That is where we need to be forward-thinking: how are we going to be able to set up structurally to support that?”

Hadfield added that the development of the space industry presents “a great opportunity for blockchain.”

Decentralized governance in space

Blockchain could also have an important role in creating rules of operation in outer space, particularly relevant since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 limits the jurisdictions of countries to Earth. How would companies operating on the Moon, Mars, or beyond interact with each other without a supervising authority in space?

A future consortium of companies engaged in space activities managed by smart contracts could be the answer. According to Israel, space governance could be guided by three layers of space law—inter- and intra-governmental policies and a private rules-based system operating within the scope of the laws set up by governments on Earth.

“As I consider the likely trajectories of space activities and blockchain technologies and contemplate a ‘full stack’ of space governance layers, I envision a new layer,” Israel explained, in a lecture.

He explained that “Space Governance 3.0 will be inter-operator: private law regimes constructed from contracts between spacecraft operators (and spacecraft, in some cases) in which all space actors, public and private, play on a level field.”

For this smart-contract governance system to work, it may require parties to lock up a substantial amount of value to the consortium as part of their contracts in order to comply with rules—as well as deal with potential penalties.

Ultimately, the role of blockchain applied to space ventures has yet to be determined, but its properties of decentralization in space could become an important aspect of future considerations.

As the technology matures, Israel argued, smart contracts could “enable satellite operators to make enforceable commitments to each other—almost to self-regulate.”

This story was produced in collaboration with our friends at Forkast, a content platform focused on emerging technology at the intersection of business, economy, and politics, from Asia to the world.