As a breakthrough technology, blockchain inspires many tech innovators to compare it to the industrial and internet revolutions. Why, and what does it mean for the space industry?
This digital ledger — which offers unprecedented security and trust among users because it cannot be hacked or centrally controlled – represents a new way to streamline existing processes, create cost savings, and securely exchange information and value. In fact, along with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT), it’s been called the “holy trinity of disruptive technology.”
With its origins in fintech, blockchain has helped enable the cryptocurrency craze that began with Bitcoin. Today, the world is moving toward digital ownership of money in large part because it depends on a distributed ledger, or blockchain.
“Distributing the Bitcoin Blockchain via satellite provides a robust alternative to terrestrial networks,” says Chris Cook, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Blockstream, credited with launching the first satellite network to distribute bitcoin blockchain.
In August 2017, an error by Google briefly caused nearly half of Japan to lose access to the internet. While connectivity was restored within the hour, users experienced slow connection speeds, which affected industries like finance, where online trading was halted. In this scenario, distributing the bitcoin blockchain via satellite would have ensured that the blockchain remained in sync with the rest of the world and thus, unaffected by internet outages.
Blockchain technology now touches virtually every sector — from safeguarding medical records and patient privacy, to tracking food safety and drug supply chain compliance, to verifying artwork authenticity, to validating oil and gas transactions and even land ownership globally.
Within the global space industry, existing and new space innovators seek to capitalize on blockchain’s promise in the race to Low-Earth orbit (LEO), creating new opportunities for collaboration, new satellite-as-a-service business models, and new ways to manage the space supply chain and even how to build payloads.
“There are huge opportunities for blockchain in satellite networks,” says Helena Correia Mendonça, principal consultant in the aerospace and ICT departments of Portuguese law firm, Vieira de Almeida (VdA), where she has advised African and European clients on space matters, and has further worked on the legal aspects of blockchain. She considers blockchain’s arrival in the space sector a natural evolution.
Mendonça says blockchain in satellites creates transparency, trust, and efficiency in the satellite value chain. For instance, in logistics, a common application is using smart contracts for launching and operating satellites, accessing transparent information for insurance purposes, as well as in exercising governmental functions — such as resorting to blockchain in the licensing process of launching a satellite and in monitoring space operations. It is also beneficial when it comes to distribution of blockchain information via satellite and even in turning satellites into “smart emancipated devices” through using smart contracts.
Satellites can also be important sources of space data for updating blocks and verifying the integrity and origin of data. and will drive smart contracts and logistics applications while being very beneficial to insurance industry. For example, space provides the ideal environment for executing “smart contracts” without human intervention. In developing countries like in Africa it has led to more financial inclusion because of satellites’ ability to reach the unconnected.
“One of the issues many of these countries have is determining the ownership and registering land, as well as identity … We know developing countries are using their government’s blockchain for this purpose,” says Mendonça. “If you get blockchain in satellites, you also get the benefit of blockchain without the need for these huge investments in ground networks.” Blockchain can thus become truly global with satellites.
Deep space applications such as space mining may will also leverage blockchain to help track and manage resources, says Mendonça.
Brian Rider, CTO for Seattle-based LeoStella, which is revolutionizing constellation construction of smallsats, sees two applications for blockchain in space. The first — providing a global distribution network that is persistent and sovereignty agnostic. The second — using blockchain to bring edge computing processing to space.
“I really think it could become the core of how satellite activity and tasking are secured [in the future],” he says. “The thing that keeps me up at night is not hackers breaking into data that is being transacted across a satellite, but hackers taking control of satellites. Blockchain is a key aspect of how we will secure our constellations in addition to using blockchain to support commercial transactions.”
Deep space applications such as space mining will also leverage blockchain to help track and manage resources, says Mendonça.
Dennis Gatens, a 30-year veteran of satellite, telecom and cloud services, now serving as Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) for Cloud Constellation, agrees, noting that missions to the moon and particularly Mars will require crews to make decisions “inside the human loop” because of transmission time delays between crews near or on Mars and resources back on Earth. Edge computing, enabled by blockchain and AI, will play critical roles.
“Eventually, deep space will become part of the national security strategy, and blockchain will play a valuable role in making sure that data is secure and not compromised,” he says.
Cloud Constellation and IBM’s Space Tech group hope to leverage both AI and blockchain as they work to enable a cloud transformation in space. Both firms, in a recent co-authored white paper, compared the significance of blockchain in space to the first Industrial Revolution.
Gatens says Cloud Constellation plans to offer global connectivity directly to the enterprise and secure data storage in orbit, with a roadmap to analytics and edge computing from IBM, as part of its SpaceBelt Data Security as a Service (DSaaS) portfolio.
Blockchain over satellite eliminates the dependence on terrestrial infrastructure for the movement, storage, or computation of data and that, according to Gatens, removes a significant vulnerability for data breach or compromise of data.
“Blockchain gives you the ability to have a chain of custody associated with data, whether the data is at rest or in motion; from end user to end user, satellite to satellite, moving in and out of storage on our satellites, or you are combining it with artificial intelligence to look for anomalous transactions or attempts at anomalous transactions.”
Naeem Altaf, IBM’s Distinguished Engineer and CTO for SpaceTech, sees huge opportunities for SpaceBelt and IBM’s blockchain service to track and ensure the transfer and trust of all suppliers during each phase of the procurement, building, testing and launching of a satellite.
“Today, we use terrestrial networks to talk to data centers,” he says. “In the future, Cloud Constellation will have a sort of data center in orbit where companies can upload their data and bypass the terrestrial network.”
Government and financial applications will be first to adopt space blockchain, Altaf says, though other industries won’t be far behind. Altaf says any industry with sensitive data and a lot of remote sites that need to get information from different sources could use space blockchain. Examples include oil and gas, mining, and the broadcast news industry.
Another area is the manufacturing of satellites from procurement to the launch site: blockchain could track a satellite’s movement, sharing data with all suppliers, and can enforce rules such as any changes made to the satellite require the consensus of the team.
Cloud Constellation selected Seattle-based LeoStella to build its 10-satellite LEO network — nine will be active and one will act as a hot spare and will have an initial data storage capacity of 1.6 petabytes for customers on orbit.
“We selected LeoStella because they aligned with our vision and have the ability to manufacture the kind of satellite we need,” says Gatens (see sidebar for an interview with LeoStella’s CTO).
Two optical rings will interconnect the entire constellation to ensure redundancy and self-healing for high availability. The SpaceBelt network will communicate with secure SpaceBelt access points located at enterprise customers’ locations via connectivity with existing Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) satellite services.
“We are about two-and-a-half years away from first service availability and we hope to do some early customer evaluations in the service in fourth quarter of 2021,” says Gatens.
The company recently announced two global partners to its SpaceBelt Partner Program: Telespazio, an Italy-based joint venture between Leonardo and Thales, and Cyprus-based telecom provider Cytaglobal. Telespazio will co-develop with Cloud Constellation a go-to-market strategy for enterprise and government customers in Europe and South America, while Cytaglobal will resell SpaceBelt DSaaS to both corporate and government customers in major markets in Europe, Asia and Africa.
While Cloud Constellation is a newer player in space blockchain, two other firms in the crypto currency and Bitcoin space have already made impressive inroads — Blockstream and SpaceChain.
“We see satellite technology as very useful to augment and reinforce exiting blockchain applications,” says Chris Cook, CTO, Blockstream, a blockchain and financial cryptography company, and the first to distribute bitcoin blockchain via satellite.
Bitcoin currently has a market cap of $183 billion and the overall cryptocurrency market cap is $273 billion, though Cook estimates the overall market size to be much larger if one counts all the ancillary companies in the industry.
Two years ago, Blockstream jumped into the space sector with Blockstream Satellite, the world’s first public satellite service that allows anyone to operate and maintain bitcoin nodes, without the constraints of traditional network connectivity.
The service, offered from five transponders on four GEO communication satellites, is free to anyone once they purchase about $100 in components, including a small 45-inch antenna. Cook says Blockstream has no idea how many users are leveraging the network, because the network and service are designed to protect the anonymity of customers.
“When we launched in 2017, we had two-thirds of the world covered — North America, South America, Europe and Africa,” says Cook, adding that Asia Pacific — from Australia to Japan, China, and part of India — was added a year later.
“Our upcoming release, which will be out in the Fourth Quarter (Q4), is a big improvement to the service where we are further increasing our coverage and availability options around the world and are increasing our bandwidth with some more interesting applications,” says Cook, indicating that the bandwidth has improved by a factor of five and that the Asia/Pacific region, which currently uses C-band connectivity, will be adding Ku-band for part of the region.
“While our core satellite network is designed to distribute the bitcoin blockchain, we’ve also enabled service where anybody can send any data they want via our satellite network and then pay for it in bitcoin,” he adds.
Singapore startup SpaceChain, also a partner of Cloud Constellation, is building an open-source satellite network that integrates with blockchain. Championing the fusion of blockchain and space, the company’s CEO and founder Zee Zheng believes that these technologies will enable a new era of seamless global collaboration.
The company launched two blockchain-enabled satellite payloads into orbit within SpaceChain’s first year of operation and three more are planned in the next 18 months.
“Our satellite payloads are the only blockchain-enabled satellite payloads in the world right now,” says Zheng. “We have witnessed how the smart phone industry has evolved and we see this trend for software-defined satellites. If they offer a secure development environment with an open-source platform, there is great potential.”
SpaceChain currently offers a satellite crypto currency wallet over SpaceChain’s private network, allowing transactions without ever touching the internet.
Zheng says new space firms are looking to use blockchain to forge partnerships with other companies. They want to explore building a joint constellation together by sharing an open source platform.
“We want to have multiple startups launch satellites to form a constellation with a shared protocol,” says Zheng. “It will no longer be one company launching 70 to form the constellation; it can be five companies and each of them launch 10 to 15, to form the constellation together. We believe blockchain creates many new opportunities to partner — which is one thing the industry is lacking.”
Zheng notes that SpaceChain wants to utilize open source distributed technology to make more application uses cases and, at the same time, more decentralized networks for the space industry.
There are several hurdles that must be overcome before blockchain applications become mainstream in orbit. IBM’s Altaf considers one of the biggest issues is the fact that blockchain is a process-based solution that requires companies to agree to work a certain way, something that may be a challenge in the competitive satellite market where companies are often reluctant to share information.
“Big players like Amazon and Walmart can force their suppliers to adhere to their blockchain network because they are their biggest customer,” he says. Not true for the satellite industry.
A second issue concerns hardware differences between terrestrial and space networks. The space blockchain requires radiation-hardened hardware. “Most of this architecture is proprietary — we have to do a lot more work to get Intel or ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) processors, currently used on your phones or to run your computer, hardened enough to work in space.”
Regardless of the operational models, all of space blockchain advocates agree on one thing: the future for blockchain applications in space is unstoppable and will lead to unprecedented new service capabilities.
Keeping pace with the explosion in LEO constellations and new satellite models that are leveraging technologies like AI and blockchain require new innovative approaches not only in orbit but with satellite payload design, according to Brian Rider, CTO of LeoStella.
Formed as a joint venture between Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries, which offers the Black Sky geospatial intelligence service, LeoStella looked at the exploding LEO market and realized it needed a better, nimbler model for building satellites that could take advantage of innovations like blockchain and AI.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a traditional small satellite market … but as a forward-thinking, constellation and space infrastructure provider,” says Rider.
The company helps commercial firms like Cloud Constellation that want to create value-added cloud services from space infrastructure determine the best way to do it from an architecture perspective.
The company has the capacity to produce up to 40 satellites a year in their Seattle factory, which follows processes and production methodologies used in the automotive industry. According to Rider, LeoStella’s director of programs previously led the supply chain for Tesla’s semi-truck projects.
“We have the ability to take satellites or long-lead components off the production line and quickly repurpose them to create a first-to-market advantage,” he says.
The company also provides full transparency to its production line, with LeoStella and customers jointly making decisions about schedule and risk.
“We provide opportunities to bring in new technology — if a new communications or camera system comes on the market, we can integrate those into production where satellites are actively being produced,” he says. VS