Imagine a future where companies on Earth are vying with each other to mine resources from the moon or asteroids — an industry potentially worth quadrillions of dollars

The mining operations on celestial bodies might be done by robots or crews working, interacting and navigating around each other under space laws propagated and enforced through smart contracts. Fines for violations are paid in cryptocurrencies and activity information is recorded on blockchain databases.

Sounds like science fiction? Moon mining may become a reality sooner rather than later as NASA recently announced it is looking to pay companies to collect samples from the lunar surface and bring them back to earth.

The exploration of next-generation science and technology is one of NASA’s main objectives for returning to the moon by 2024 and preparing for future missions to Mars, named the Artemis program.

“Over the next decade, the Artemis program will lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface and use the moon to validate deep space systems and operations before embarking on the much farther voyage to Mars,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, in a recent statement. “The ability to conduct in-situ resources utilization (ISRU) will be incredibly important on Mars, which is why we must proceed with alacrity to develop techniques and gain experience with ISRU on the surface of the moon.”

NASA has enlisted companies including Astrobotic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Lockheed Martin to fly equipment and cargo to the moon in preparation for lunar landing.

But with more private organizations involved in space explorations, there may come a point where the sovereignless nature of space could become an obstacle to celestial business ambitions. How would one develop, maintain and enforce rules for operations and engagement for all these companies and their assets when they are in motion, hundreds or thousands of kilometers above Earth? 

Blockchain, space technologists say, may provide the answer.

Smart contracts in space

This is the basis of the idea of space governance, where private organizations would agree to sets of rules that are then carried out and enforced through smart contracts.

“If you gaze a little bit into the future and imagine a whole supply chain based on celestial body resources, that’s easy to envision, especially if transactions are negotiated between robots,” Brian Israel, lecturer of space and blockchain law at UC Berkeley Law School, told Forkast.News.

Delays in communication between the Earth and the moon may not present immediate issues for lunar explorations, as there’s only a 1.25 second delay for radio communications. But once missions travel to far-flung destinations like Mars, communications delays could reach up to 24 minutes each way.

This delay already creates challenges for organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA’s missions to Mars. How could mission control react in a timely manner if there is an urgent situation involving a distant spacecraft? 

“You can see the advantage of smart contracts there,” said Israel, who was co-founder of ConsenSys Space and general counsel of asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources, both of which are now wound down.

See related article: Blockchain is shooting for the stars in the new Space Age

The programmable nature of smart contracts — which execute actions and reactions automatically based on a variety of inputs and predetermined rules — could give users confidence that space interactions and potential conflicts between parties would immediately be worked out and activities would not slowed, halted or be hindered by delays in communications or confusion over rules.

Decentralized vs top-down organization

As NASA ramps up space-related activities in anticipation of its return to the lunar surface, it has also unveiled guidelines for behavior in space and on the moon.

In May, the agency announced the Artemis Accords, which create “safety zones” around mining and exploration areas on the moon — the signing of which is a requirement for countries wishing to take part in its lunar exploration program.

Bridenstine has said that NASA’s efforts to collaborate with companies to mine resources on the moon would comply with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which states that countries are not able to make sovereign claims over territory in space.

“As we start to settle on the moon over the next couple of decades, and as we start to mine what’s available on the moon, and the companies that are set up to mine asteroids, as the cost of access drops…how are we going to manage that?” said retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in a recent interview with Forkast.News

“How are we going to understand the pedigree of everything that we’re doing along the way? There’s a huge opportunity there,” added Hadfield, referring to blockchain’s potential to assist the management of space operations. 

The growing number of organizations exploring space creates governance challenges, especially since there is no single authority to oversee these activities, no sovereign in charge of space, as per the Outer Space Treaty.

Here is where blockchain comes in as a potential solution. Space governed by “Space Law” — a framework of rules, principles and international agreements. 

Space Law 1.0, as it currently exists, extends space-related international law and agreements to non-governmental space activities, such as SpaceX flights. 

Space Law 2.0 would be the next step, from international negotiations to a series of uncoordinated negotiations of rules between local governments and national governments. These rules would be drafted in national legislatures ahead of or in parallel with negotiations made on the international plane.

An example of this would be California’s carbon cap-and-trade program, which aims to lower the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, Israel said. While California’s program must abide by U.S. laws, it also falls within the scope of the Paris Agreement signed by nation members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Space Law 3.0 would go a step further, by allowing private organizations to set up consortiums and create rules of operations through blockchain and smart contract systems under the umbrella of the previous two Space Laws.

“As I consider the likely trajectories of space activities and blockchain technologies and contemplate a ‘full stack’ of space governance layers, I envision a new layer,” said Israel in a recent lecture. “Space Governance 3.0 will be inter-operator: private law regimes constructed from contracts between spacecraft operators (and spacecraft, in some cases) in which all space actors, public and private, play on a level field.”

“In space or for carbon credit trading, if you have credit represented as tokens on a blockchain network, what you are placing your trust in, is you essentially have a set of rules that are transparent about how these operate,” Israel said, in his interview with Forkast.News

See related article: How smart contracts can help govern and mine resources in outer space

To enforce the rules, participants would be required to put down a large amount of collateral in escrow, which would be forfeited as a penalty for contract violations.

“One of the main limitations I see is that I only see this working if the parties are willing to basically escrow a substantial amount of value in the contract,” Israel said. “I don’t think it’s the case that they can just keep [funds] in their own wallet; the contract will suck it out if they are found to violate it.

For Space Law 3.0 to succeed, the system would also have to be accepted and used by a large number of stakeholder companies to create a network effect.

“These regimes I envision are based on voluntary contract, and they’re based on a critical mass of operators perceiving their interest is better served inside this regime and voluntarily contracting to make themselves bound by it,” Israel said. “But without that, it’s not very efficacious.”

Smart contracts operate best under conditions where input from a device or user is objectively verifiable. Oracles in blockchain act as the intermediary between the smart contract and the resources that the contract takes in as input. For cases where data inputs for a smart contract are more complex than a simple yes or no answer, Israel argues that humans can form part of the oracle service.

“I personally see a value in using smart contracts in a hybrid way to use arbitrators as an oracle – to have human arbitrators in the oracle loop,” Israel said. “Then you still have the value of the automaticity of enforcement of smart contracts, where you’re not having to then go into the court that has jurisdiction of a party you just won a judgment against, and enforcing its assets.”

Can blockchain help clear junk from space?

Blockchain may be needed to help provide solutions to problems within earth’s orbit sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, an 18-ton Chinese rocket plummeted to earth, passing over Los Angeles and New York before plunging into the Atlantic Ocean. As the space debris was falling back to Earth, many did not know where the rocket would land.

This example illustrates a growing concern that untracked space junk creates risks to satellites in orbit by forcing them to perform expensive evasive maneuvers to avoid collisions. An estimated 20,000 pieces of debris the size of a softball or larger orbit the earth and are not tracked with accuracy, which could result in accidental collisions with functional spacecraft.

TrueSat is an open-source, blockchain-powered system that uses citizen input to help track down satellites. By crowdsourcing data from professionals as well as hobbyists, the platform aims to improve the long term sustainability of space-flight by providing publicly available information that could prevent collisions in space. TrueSat was previously managed by former ConsenSys subsidiary ConsenSys space, but is now run by its community according to a company spokesperson.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is also investigating blockchain applications in space. Last year, the ESA released a white paper investigating the use of blockchain for earth observation (EO) purposes in conjunction with “decentralized artificial intelligence.” The goal is to test the feasibility of a decentralized machine learning model using the open source Inter-Planetary File System, smart contracts and reward systems.

“We are developing activities that are aimed to demonstrate how AI algorithm training in Earth Observation data value chains can be performed over decentralized and encrypted data while ensuring strong privacy protocols for data providers and model providers,” said Anna Burzykowska, a spokesperson for the ESA, told Forkast.News

The ESA project “Blockchain for Space Activities” operated by Estonian distributed ledger technology (DLT) provider Guardtime aims to help track supply chains and EO data.

“We explore these concepts also in the context of the copyrights protection and IP registration to enhance the business environment, trust and transparency in the platform-based EO data processing architectures,” Burzykowska said.

NASA has also explored the role of blockchain applications within a multi-sensor satellite architecture as well as using bitcoin and blockchain in distributed spacecraft missions. The research papers outline the potential usage of blockchain and smart contracts to assist secure communications between satellites as well as to log and track events including data gathered from Earth observation activities.  

The demand for infrastructure in space will increase in tandem with growth in data throughput, telecommunications, encryption and payment demands, others say.

“This is all real, and not science fiction, as it is going to happen in the next several years,” Jeff Garzik, SpaceChain’s chief technology officer, told Forkast.News. “We feel that the developments in the space industry of the past several months and years have only accelerated humanity’s likelihood of accessing space in their lifetimes.”

This is the second of a special two-part series exploring blockchain applications in space. You can read the first part here: Blockchain is shooting for the stars in the new Space Age