China's Long March 2F rocket, carrying the Tiangong-1, or 'Heavenly Palace,' module blasts off from the Jiuquan launch center in Gansu province on Sept 29, 2011. Photo: AFP
SpaceChain's micro-satellite was sent into orbit in October 2018 aboard a Chinese rocket launched from the PRC's Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre. Photo: SpaceChain

Bitcoin being traded from space? Sound futuristic and far-fetched? Well, in fact, it is already happening. Take Blockstream, described by its CEO, Adam Back, as a Bitcoin/blockchain “infrastructure company” that offers multiple crypto-related products and network services.

The Canadian-based business has leased capacity on five geostationary (GEO) satellites so it can tap into what it thinks is a huge potential global customer base – the majority of whom are unbanked – who, Back says, are eager to participate in the cryptocurrency boom but cannot because they live in rural areas or villages where internet services are expensive.

Back explains that the amount of bandwidth consumed when a “full Bitcoin node” is transferred over the internet is high. But, by using a combination of forward error correction (FEC) digital signal processing technology with a Fast Internet Bitcoin Relay Engine (FIBRE) blockchain transaction and transmission protocol, via satellite, it can, says Back, “greatly reduce” the associated costs of crypto trading.

After a year of development Blockstream’s platform went live in October.

Another company that claims to be making inroads into the sector is Singapore-based SpaceChain. CEO and co-founder Zee Zheng describes the one-year-old company as a community-based space platform which is in its “proof of concept and technology stage” and says SpaceChain will use Low Earth Orbit (LEOs) satellites, that are much cheaper than GEO networks, to take blockchain into space.

This, says Zheng, will allow “smaller satellite companies or space startups to build a multi-vendor, multi-jurisdiction, decentralized satellite network with each other. “We would also love to have GEO satellite, ground stations and LEO satellite terminal equipment partners participate in the network to enhance the overall connectivity.” Zheng told Asia Times.

He added that SpaceChain have set up “over 15 partnerships with space companies that intend to build upon our protocol.”

On January 18, SpaceChain announced a successful test of its second “blockchain node in space” LEO micro-satellite which had been sent into orbit in October aboard a Chinese rocket launched from the PRC’s Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre in Shanxi Province in October 2018.

Connectivity tests first require detection of the node’s signal, says Zheng, and also the uploading of the transaction data to the node and the downloading back to a ground station that then sends the signal on for final verification over the blockchain’s network.

“We now have two satellite ground station uplink sites, both in China and we are communicating with ground station partners all over the world to help provide ground station support for our satellites,” said Zheng.

While SpaceChain’s operating system can perform several blockchain-related functions, such as running smart contracts and multi-signature transactions, Zheng admits the company is facing major “challenges.” To build a global satellite constellation supporting 24x7x365 real-time communications, 72 satellites must be placed in six orbital planes with 12 satellites per orbit. The network also requires in-orbit and on-the-ground spares for backup.

Despite the obvious issues, Zheng is proud of what SpaceChain has accomplished so far.

“We launched two nodes equipped with our own payloads and built multi-signature cold wallet [secure crypto-currency storage] technology on satellites,” says Zheng. “We have also done in-depth research and exploration, and deeply integrated space technology and blockchain technology.”

“SpaceChain … enables users to easily set up their own encryption process to protect their data. We apply secure encryption and multi-signature technology and users have data encryption private keys,” says Zheng. “We will continue to expand our distributed (satellite) constellation and promote open-source technology, while building partnerships within the space industry.”

SupremeSAT is a Sri Lanka company that is also pursuing satellite-based crypto and blockchain service connectivity, as are Estonia-based Space Impulse and San Diego-based XYO Network.

The XYO Network, that plans to launch its EtherX satellite in late 2019 aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, goes beyond the transmitting of crypto data and intends to challenge the dominance of Global Positioning System (GPS), that is owned by the US Air Force. XYO Co-founder Scott Scheper has described its satellites as a “first step toward building out an open (crypto) location network (which can) deliver a layer of un-spoofable location certainty, which GPS can never match.”

Watch this space.

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