How satellites and blockchain go together

Long March launch
A Chinese Long March 4B rocket lifts off from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in October 2018. One of the payloads was a nanosatellite equipped with a SpaceChain blockchain node. (CCTV via SciNews / YouTube)

It’s been three months since Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture headquartered in Redmond, Wash., was acquired by the ConsenSys blockchain studio — and although the venture currently known as ConsenSys Space hasn’t yet take the wraps off its business plan, another space-centric blockchain venture just might provide some clues.

Singapore-based SpaceChain has been ramping up its activity over the past year, highlighted by the launch of two nanosatellite-based blockchain nodes into orbit aboard Chinese Long March rockets in February and October of 2018.

Last month, SpaceChain said it ran a successful test of space-to-ground blockchain transactions — specifically, the completion of a signature verification procedure that could theoretically be used for contracts.

“The multi-signature cold wallet service – an application developed by SpaceChain engineers to test the space node – shows proof of technology of being a potential cyber security solution for the blockchain industry,” SpaceChain co-founder and chief technology officer Jeff Garzik said in a news release.

GeekWire Guide: What is blockchain, and why is it a potential game-changer?

Today, SpaceChain and the Arch Mission Foundation reported that one of the digital payloads stored aboard the satellite launched in October was Arch’s Orbital Library, containing a complete copy of Wikipedia.

“The Orbital Library on SpaceChain’s satellite is the beginning a ring of backup data orbiting around the Earth, and constitutes the first extraterrestrial archive and first step in establishing more Arch libraries that will preserve human knowledge and culture,” Nova Spivack, co-founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, said in a news release. “Through massive replication around the solar system we will be able to guarantee that the Arch Libraries will never be lost – even millions to billions of years in the future.”

The foundation is also planning to send installments of its Lunar Library Project for archiving on the moon’s surface. The first installment is being placed on SpaceIL’s lunar lander, and the second installment will fly to the moon on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander as early as next year.

It’s possible to add to the Orbital Library as the archive expands.

“We support the Arch Mission Foundation’s goal of preserving knowledge for future generations and are excited to play a part in achieving that mission through our satellite technology,” SpaceChain co-founder and CEO Zee Zheng said. “As launch costs are reduced, we are able to achieve important missions like Arch’s and opportunities in space that were never before possible.”

The best-known blockchain applications have to do with cryptocurrency, but the technology can be used as well for non-currency applications such as verifying the supply chain for a given product, or ensuring that a document or a database hasn’t been surreptitiously tampered with.

In a series of answers to emailed questions, SpaceChain CEO Zee Zheng explained why space-based operations add a benefit to blockchain. Here’s the Q&A, with apologies for Zheng’s crypto-geeky references to potentially arcane aspects of blockchain technology:

GeekWire: This would be a way to conduct secure transactions in space, right? For example, a person could store cryptocurrency in a satellite constellation rather than depending on a terrestrial, internet-connected network that could be prone to pilfering (as we’ve seen with past cryptocurrency scandals)?

Zee Zheng: “Yes, by using a node in space we remove the physical attack vector as well as a high degree of security on the supply-chain attack vector (given how much testing and review is required to put a device in space), and our hardware and software does not interact with the internet. Instead, it only interacts with our satellite payloads, removing a significant hacking attack vector, and using a 2/3 multi-signature transaction structure, users retain full control of their funds.”

“Here’s how a multi-signature transaction would work. After selecting the SpaceChain space multi-signature service, the user will get the wallet address public key of a Space Node. The user can generate a 2/3 multi-signature wallet address on the client with his own wallet address, alternate contact wallet address, and the Space Node wallet address.

“The role of the alternate contact wallet address is that if there is a problem connecting with the Space Node, the user can enable the private key of the alternate contact wallet address to retrieve the encrypted currency in the multi-signature wallet address. When the user wants to initiate a transaction, the client first transfers the cryptocurrency to the multi-signature wallet address. After the user signs the confirmation with his private key, the transaction that completes the signature is sent and received from the Space Node, and then broadcast to the Qtum blockchain.”

GeekWire: I know Qtum [pronounced like “quantum”] is a blockchain system that can be used for cryptocurrency or other blockchain-secured applications … If you could provide some examples of potential applications … that would be a great help. Also, it’d be good to answer the question about why space rather than terrestrial-based blockchain systems.

Zee Zheng: “We are envisioning applications like ultra-secure encrypted messaging, a space-based distributed data center, etc. And of course we will be able to facilitate blockchain transactions in rural areas, oceans and places that terrestrial network is not available.”

GeekWire: I assume there’s a link between Qtum and SpaceChain, just as there’s a link between Ethereum and ConsenSys Space?

Zee Zheng: “Qtum is one of our partners and early supporters, and we have plans to make good use of their smart contract capabilities. However, we are also integrating ETH [Ethereum] and other public chains. So we are not exclusive with Qtum, we are open to all the open-source technology as long as it fits our vision.

“We have had some interactions with the ConsenSys team and are excited that more people are working on blockchain + space. We look forward to hearing their updates.”

For what it’s worth, SpaceChain and ConsenSys aren’t the only companies working on blockchain + space. A report published today by Asia Times lays out the details on several other blockchain-related space ventures, including Blockstream in Canada, Supreme Global Holdings in Sri Lanka and Malta, Space Impulse in Estonia and XYO Network in San Diego. XYO is planning to have its EtherX satellite launched into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, potentially late this year.

Bottom line? When ConsenSys Space unveils its blockchain strategy, it’ll be taking a giant leap into what’s already a busy frontier.