Can Ethereum, also known as the “World Computer,” function outside this world — in space?

Singapore-based SpaceChain plans to put the idea to the test with today’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will carry an Ethereum node to the International Space Station. 

Blockchain-based systems such as Bitcoin and Ethereum depend on decentralization to distribute their digital assets and services to users around the world without the need of a central authority.

However, about 65% of the Bitcoin network’s hashing power is located in China, revealing that the world’s largest cryptocurrency is not as decentralized as envisioned by creator Satoshi Nakamoto.

Could blockchain nodes in space help achieve Nakamoto’s vision for truly decentralized cryptocurrency?

“A lot of decentralized applications are still built on centralized servers like AWS and other kinds of centralized servers,” said Zee Zheng, co-founder and CEO of SpaceChain, in an interview with Forkast.News. “But… it’s actually when the network becomes more and more valuable, you actually need a potentially decentralized infrastructure to support that.”

Centralized woes

Large cryptocurrency miners such as those in China often coalesce around cheap sources of electricity to keep their mining rigs powered, cooled and profitable.

But the clustering of mining hash power in areas with cheap power has not always been to the benefit of cryptocurrency networks.

Problems arising from the increasing amount of mining centralization were recently highlighted when Chinese national and regional authorities tried to reign in the cryptocurrency sector. China’s coal-rich Inner Mongolia province — a hub for Bitcoin production — imposed an outright ban on crypto mining. When Chinese authorities then issued new warnings against crypto mining, the price of Bitcoin plunged.

Last year, extensive flooding and landslides in Sichuan Province — another Bitcoin mining hub — wiped out cryptocurrency miners in the region, also resulting in large drops of BTC hash rates. 

Events like extreme weather, global pandemics and governmental crackdowns have tested the limits of traditional centralized systems. The Covid-19 pandemic further demonstrated how quickly disruption can spread throughout the world.

“Having full nodes in space further increases decentralization and protection against black swan events,” said Max Kordek, co-founder of Lisk, an open-source blockchain application platform. “If electricity grids or political systems of entire countries fail, full nodes in space guarantee access to and in some cases even a continuation of various blockchains.”

Kordek told Forkast.News that nodes in space would benefit the network. “It’s definitely one of the many improvements which can be done to ensure that, for example, Bitcoin stays a totally independent cryptocurrency which serves as an immutable transactional layer for humanity.”

Lift off for decentralization

SpaceChain, a crypto startup based in Singapore, is among the first to test out blockchain capabilities in space, creating a potential blueprint for the further decentralization of cryptocurrency networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum. 

This month, SpaceChain plans to launch two missions into space to deploy decentralized satellite infrastructure as well as launch multi-signature crypto transactions.

If successful, today’s rocket launch will be the first time that Ethereum technology becomes part of the International Space Station (ISS). 

The mission would mark the fourth blockchain payload launched to space by the company, following an earlier demonstration of a Bitcoin node installation and completion of a multi-signature transaction in space. In August last year, the company sent around 0.0099 BTC (about US$92 at the time) to Bitcoin addresses via their blockchain hardware installed on the ISS.

This time around, the company seeks to test whether a core feature of what makes the Ethereum network a “World Computer” — smart contracts — can work from 400 kilometers, or about 248.5 miles above sea level. 

“We will definitely explore a lot of smart contracts,” Zheng said. “We always envision having a decentralized infrastructure to support the whole blockchain ecosystem and that if we can run some kind of smart contract, that would be particularly interesting.”

SpaceChain’s second mission, scheduled for June 24, will launch nodes for digital currency exchange Biteeu as well as Divine, a community project. 

Divine aims to use satellite technology to broadcast the Quran to people around the world.

“As technology progresses, so does the number of supports that hold the Quran, and we think this is something positive for the preservation of its message,” said Encarna Gutiérrez, Secretary General of the Islamic Culture Foundation, in an interview with Forkast.News. “The most important thing is to spread it in good will, preserving it in full and without alterations.”  

Proponents of blockchain in space say that having nodes in orbit enhances their physical security, since they are more out of reach of malicious actors. 

Other experts add that in a spacefaring future where humans establish bases on the Moon or eventually on Mars and beyond, cryptocurrencies and blockchain-based applications using smart contracts will become essential for operations and communication.

See related article: Blockchain and Space Law 3.0: How smart contracts can help govern the moon and outer space

“With humanity having to reach out into space in the future, an interplanetary payment system is required,” Kordek said. “Blockchains with long block times are ideal for this scenario to settle transactions between planets.”

NASA’s Artemis program — which aims to return to the moon by 2024 and eventually reach Mars — highlights increasing efforts to expand outside of the confines of Earth. 

JPMorgan Chase is also experimenting with blockchain in space. Earlier this year, the banking behemoth announced in a statement that it had tested the first “bank-led tokenized value transfer in space, executed via smart contracts on a blockchain network established between satellites orbiting the earth.”

“Running full nodes of any blockchain in space is the necessary first step towards an interplanetary payment system built with blockchain technology,” Kordek said. “These early, pioneering efforts will ensure future technological innovation.”

Constellations of blockchain satellites

But the benefit of having access to secure transmissions in space could be oriented to address the security needs of large enterprises in the future, which Zheng said could eventually own satellite networks.

“Enterprise customers [that are] protecting particularly large assets can launch a full satellite network just to serve their transactions, [and] can generate their own private links for all outbound or inbound communication,” Zheng said. “Then, all transactions will only be conducted [with] a uniquely encrypted method of communication.

According to Zheng, a privately owned network of satellites could give global access to information and services provided by the company operating the network.

The idea is gaining traction around the world through companies such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, a constellation of thousands of mass-produced satellites aiming to provide global internet access. Recently, Germany announced that it would seek to provide internet to rural users via satellite internet providers such as Starlink.

As demand for satellite internet providers like Starlink builds up, the themes of centralization and reliance on a company like Starlink also raises the idea of decentralization for satellite services. 

“What we want to do is use blockchain protocol to enable different companies and different jurisdictions to connect together,” Zheng said. 

Traditional business has often relied on trust in companies and brands for transactions, but trusting decentralized code instead of the reputation of a corporation could be an obstacle to broader blockchain adoption. 

“Blockchain actually is one of the best solutions for that, because basically you don’t need to trust the company or trust a person, just trust the code,” Zheng said