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.