Once thought to be a place out of reach, outer space may soon be the next home for innovations to take place. Just last month, we witnessed two successful space flights by business magnates Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, hinting that commercial space travel might become a reality sooner than we think.

Apart from testing the viability of space tourism, some companies are also experimenting with new technologies in space to address problems on earth. One such company is SpaceChain, a Singapore start-up that is building an open and neutral infrastructure for the new space economy by integrating space and blockchain technologies. It offers space-as-a-service solutions to enable businesses to explore and realise the potential of space and blockchain.

Since its inception in 2017, SpaceChain has launched five blockchain-enabled satellite payloads to realise its vision of a decentralised satellite infrastructure for FinTech and business applications.

For instance, SpaceChain sent an Ethereum node to the International Space Station (ISS) via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 3. This marked the first demonstration of Ethereum technology integration into SpaceChain’s hardware on ISS. The launch mission was made possible by private in-space services company Nanoracks and the Space Act Agreement between SpaceChain and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Following that, SpaceChain launched another mission on June 30, where the space nodes created for its customers — including digital asset management firm Nexus Inc, digital currency exchange Biteeu, and community project Divine — were installed on a YAM-2 satellite. The mission was carried by a Falcon 9 rocket under SpaceX’s rideshare programme, and operated by Loft Orbital.

“These launch missions are paving the way for the commercialisation of space-based innovations as we see more enterprises share the same vision in leveraging the new space economy for heightened security and immutability," says Zee Zheng, SpaceChain co-founder and CEO.

Zee Zheng, SpaceChain co-founder and CEO - THE EDGE SINGAPOREZheng: As a leading solutions provider in integrated blockchain and space technologies, we are delivering our expertise to benefit more companies and a wider community as we forge ahead to establish more use cases for blockchain-based satellite networks in space. 

What’s the big deal with blockchain?

Commonly known as the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies, a blockchain is a decentralised ledger of all transactions across a peer-to-peer network.

With blockchain, contracts are embedded in digital code and stored in transparent, shared databases, where they are protected from deletion, tampering and revision. This means every agreement, process, task, and payment has a digital record and signature that could be identified, validated, stored, and shared — eliminating the need for intermediaries.

Blockchain can help revolutionise businesses and drive economic growth by providing a complete, transparent and tamper-proof audit trail of processes. According to a 2020 report by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), blockchain has the potential to boost global GDP by US$1.76 trillion ($2.39 trillion) over the next decade.

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Besides supporting cryptocurrencies and cross-border and remittance payments, PwC predicts that blockchain will be increasingly used to track and trace products and services in supply chains, in contracts and dispute resolution, as well as for identity management and customer engagement. Such efforts will help organisations in both public and private sectors improve operational efficiency, reduce costs, and build greater trust and loyalty among customers, staff, and business partners.

Barriers of blockchain adoption

Despite its transformative power, blockchain has yet to be widely used. One reason for this, says Zheng, is that many people still do not understand what a blockchain is as well as how it works and creates value for businesses.

Some countries are also taking the wait-and-see approach instead of proactively engaging in discussions and collaborating with blockchain players to facilitate the development and commercialisation of the technology for real-world applications. The absence or lack of clear guidelines on blockchain thus inhibits adoption.

Another barrier to adoption is the fact that blockchain can be slow and cumbersome due to its distributed nature. “Blockchain doesn’t have the greatest performance and efficiency — especially when it is running on the internet, which is now a centralised infrastructure — because we basically have to store the same data multiple times,” notes Zheng.

Building an infrastructure out of this world

It goes without saying that the Internet is a crucial foundation of our digital lives. However, it is challenging to reap the full benefits of blockchain when it runs on the Internet.

The Internet relies on centralised services, meaning that we are at the mercy of whoever is controlling the central location. The Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage — due to problems with the Amazon Kinesis real-time data processing service — last November exemplifies this. Since AWS is one of the most widely-used cloud computing services in the world, the outage took down thousands of its customers’ sites and services for several hours.

The centralised Internet is therefore not ideal for blockchain, whose purpose is to distribute access. This is why SpaceChain and its partners are developing a decentralised space infrastructure (DSI) that will ensure that “no one entity will be able to control everything”, says Zheng.

DSI is a mesh network of heterogeneous spacecraft owned and operated in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by multiple parties in multiple jurisdictions. It follows a Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) architecture, with each spacecraft acting as a network node.

A blockchain registry forms the backend infrastructure of the DSI. Users on earth and spacecraft are regarded as nodes in the blockchain network. Through the blockchain transaction and peer-to-peer data communication protocols, the registry connects users with the participating spacecraft in a transparent yet secure way.

Zheng also highlights that using blockchains in space can help enhance security, given the remoteness and security of the space infrastructure. “For example, we can set up a private key in one of the satellites/spacecrafts, which will play a role in multi-signature transactions. If a transaction requires three keys, two of them will be on earth while the third key is in space. Even if hackers were to get their hands on the land-based keys, they can’t get the last key as it uses a different way of transmitting data (i.e. through DSI).”

“Besides that, our payloads are installed on the ISS, which is one of the most secure channels in the world, and we use various encryption methods. We are also working to ensure that we can launch our satellites with different companies and from various countries and that we can use different communication protocols, to add more layers of protection. All these efforts make it difficult for hackers to launch an attack,” he says.

In sum, blockchain seems to have limitless potential as it can be used in many ways to improve existing processes and help create new revenue streams for organisations across industries. Besides having a robust and secure infrastructure to back it, a greater understanding of the technology and stronger support for its development are needed for blockchain to flourish.

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