Spacefaring futures. Research conducted | views expressed are my own.
A new space era is here. We’re witnessing the convergence of emerging and advanced technologies for space missions. This convergence has made a profound impact on the speed and efficiency to reach significant milestones for space research, travel, and exploration.
Governments and international space agencies have often partnered with private companies and research institutions. Due to costs and complexity, the space industry is collaborative and multi-stakeholder. I know first-hand. I worked in 2017 as Global Communications Manager at Ad Astra Rocket Company, which focuses on developing advanced plasma electric propulsion technology for in-space transportation.
I have been fascinated with space from a very early age. Space promises adventure. It also presents us with some of the most complex challenges to solve as a civilization.
The current global space ecosystem is growing. Traditional paradigms of cybersecurity in space depend on shielding sensitive information for national security by leveraging centralized computing servers and cloud-based architectures. With a wider acceptance of peer-to-peer network-based infrastructures, which seek to avoid centralized points of failure, I recently researched blockchain uses in private-public space partnerships.
For six weeks, I joined the first online cohort composed of blockchain enthusiasts, students, and professionals from across the globe for the following course: Blockchain Fundamentals for Enterprise. This course was organized by the Blockchain Center in tandem with FinTech School and led by Professor Gregory LaBlanc. Expanding upon the concepts and insights learned throughout the course, I wanted to submit a capstone research project about space as my final assignment.
In my process of inquiry, I learned that blockchain as an exciting emerging technology for space has not lagged. Blockchain is defined here as a type of distributed ledger technology that provides a record of ownership and transfer of data into a single and shared source of truth instead of a centralized master ledger. Specifically, blocks of data are chained sequentially using cryptographic functions called hashes for a complete audit trail that provides proof of transactions. If data has been tampered with anywhere along the chain, computer nodes can easily detect inconsistencies and reject transactions to reach network consensus.
Several cases of private-public partnerships currently explore blockchain architectures in the space industry, especially for satellites. SpaceChain proposes an open-source meta satellite network with potential for crowdfunding efforts. Blockstream proposes satellites that broadcast the Bitcoin blockchain to reduce Bitcoin’s dependency on Internet access and thus its energy footprint on Earth. ConsensySpace launches TruSat, a blockchain-based database to monitor the position of satellites.
Background of Problem
A niche case for blockchain technologies is space debris. Debris in space results from human-made objects that have exploded, collided, or broken apart in-orbit. Depending on its volume and size, debris traveling at high velocities in space can cause significant damage. Space debris may potentially disable outbound or inbound satellites, impact infrastructure such as that of the International Space Station - ISS, and strike astronauts during their walks.
As of February 2020, the European Space Agency - ESA reported 34,000 objects larger than 10 cm currently orbiting the Earth and more than 500 breakups, explosions, and collisions in low Earth orbit. Low Earth orbit or LEO is commonly defined by the National Aeronautics Space Station - NASA as the region of space within 2,000km of Earth's surface. LEO is densely concentrated with debris and in range to Earth’s gravitational proximity.
Geosynchronous orbit or GEO is the region around the Earth roughly at 35,786km above the equator. An increasing number of communications and weather satellites populate the GEO as it matches the direction and period of the Earth’s rotation. The hazard of space debris in GEO has been reported to be under-measured.
Only a portion of satellites launched and still in space remain functional. In the quest for faster and better access to the Internet, more satellites are being sent to space. Private companies plan to launch satellite constellations that surpass the numbers of thousands. Some of them include SpaceX’s Starlink network, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and OneWeb.
The question is: how can emerging technologies manage the data of a crowded Earth orbit with satellites and space debris? In the long term, if unattended, such crowding out can prove disastrous. This is especially important because debris in space is a collective risk. There are numerous agencies and stakeholders managing space debris collaboratively and independently, including but not limited to NASA, U.S. Department of Defense Orbital Debris Program, ESA, Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, among many others.
Use Case #1: NASA and Faculty Research
Making waves across the Internet and generating lots of buzz, NASA awarded in 2018 a three-year Early Career Faculty Grant to Dr. Jin Wei-Kocsis during her role as professor at the University of Akron in Ohio. Per media outlets, this Early Career Faculty Grant constituted the first time NASA’s Glenn Research Center funds blockchain projects for space.
The research proposes developing Ethereum-based architectures for autonomous spacecraft with other advancements such as cognitive computing, Internet of Things, and machine learning. These autonomous spacecraft could potentially detect, recognize, and avoid space debris, as well as automatically execute tasks in deep space environments. Deep space constitutes the distant outer regions beyond LEO and cislunar space.
As a government agency, NASA shares details about the timeline and the status of this grant (#80NSSC17K0530) with the public. Interesting updates about this ongoing research are available in a couple of technical publications. Wei-Kocsis and fellow researchers, including NASA personnel, explain in the published technical papers that are part of the grant:
“There still remain essential challenges to develop effective data-driven methods because of the need to acquire a large amount of data and to have sufficient computing power to handle the data…To address these challenges, a decentralized, secure, and privacy-preserving computing paradigm is proposed to enable an asynchronized cooperative computing process amongst scattered and untrustworthy computing nodes that may have limited computing power and computing intelligence. This paradigm is designed by exploring blockchain, decentralized learning, homomorphic encryption, and software defined networking(SDN) techniques.”
Wei-Kocsis, currently a professor at Purdue University, shared some noteworthy insights at the 2019 Converge2Xcelerate Conference. This conference was filmed on the live Traders Network Show in Boston, Massachusetts on October 2019. Wei-Kocsis stressed the limitations in deep space of computing power and machine intelligence, which depend on centralized, cloud-based systems. Distance, debris, or radiation interference can be disastrous to spacecraft. They cause the latency of data, communications, and decisions.
"If you have some emergency…in deep space, you don’t have enough time to address that issue…in real time [and] potentially cause critical situations,” Wei-Kocsis explains.
This sentiment about critical timing is confirmed in NASA documentation. Documenting the impact of space debris on the ISS crew, the Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership- APPEL at NASA write:
“Sometimes there isn’t enough advance warning to perform a conjunction assessment or a maneuver. For example, in 2009 a collision threat to the ISS crossed the red threshold, meaning the risk of collision was greater than 1 in 10,000. Because there wasn’t time to perform a collision avoidance maneuver, the ISS crew was instructed to get into the Soyuz spacecraft so that if the ISS were hit by debris, the crew would have a chance of undocking and going home.”
The limitations in power and memory of cloud-based, centralized-computing architectures for deep space are key challenges for sustained space missions. This is at the core of the faculty grant research. There’s also an inherent challenge of scaling trust amongst multiple parties, institutions, and stakeholders. Wei-Kocsis discusses this in the conference.
"There will be spacecraft owned by NASA and potentially owned by other countries such as Russia such as China. [This] doesn’t mean that there are malicious... just means that trustworthiness [among] parties is kind of low.”
In this sense, where trust among parties is a concern or just complex to build, decentralized blockchain-ledgers may provide-relief with an additional level of applications: smart contracts.
Smart contracts are electronic transactions that execute as programmed on blockchain networks such as Ethereum. If the necessary conditions are met, performance and enforcement are guaranteed. Wei-Kocsis and fellow researcher Praveen Fernando, expand their work on smart contracts.
“In our proposed networking solution, we exploit Ethereum blockchain and impose security functionalities automatically via smart contracts.”
Both researchers claim to have submitted a provisional patent about these technologies as well (USA Parent provisional 62/771,230,2018). A common source of data distributed across the blockchain network therefore builds-in incentives for multiple parties to trust in advance these self-enforcing smart contracts. These computable contracts are programmed according to specific objectives. Currently, there is not a single source of truth. There are heterogeneous points of data about individual satellites and space debris, which represents a cumbersome technical and policy issue.
As part of my research, I took a look at the fascinating and in-depth perspectives about the nuances of smart contracts from a contract law perspective. In Contracts ExMachina, Professors Kevin Werbach and Nicolas Cornell explain:
“The critical distinction between smart contracts and other forms of electronic agreements is enforcement. Once the computers determine that the requisite state has been achieved, they automatically perform data-oriented or computable contracts…The evolution from electronic, to data-oriented, to computable contracts embodies a trend toward greater machine autonomy. As computers can increasingly replace humans in negotiating, forming, performing, and enforcing contracts, contracts can increasingly operate with the speed and consistency of machines…Yet by switching from the ex post adjudication of contract to the ex ante reduction of agreements to software code, smart contracts will in some cases merely shift problems rather than eliminate them…Even if the smart contract operates exactly as designed, it may produce suboptimal results, either in the minds of one or both parties, or as a matter of economic efficiency, because it is fixed. Sometimes, for example, nonperformance is the desirable outcome. Much has been made of the idea of efficient breach…”
Increased machine autonomy may indeed manage and address space debris. Decisions about space debris may be executed automatically instead of decisions by exceptions between institutions and across networks. This, however, raises complex questions from a contract law perspective about future scenarios. For example, how to manage errors in code.
“Even if the underlying blockchain consensus mechanisms are reliable, the smart contract applications running on top of them may not be…” write Werbach and Cornell.
It also raises questions about how to manage the possible unintended uses of self-enforcing smart contracts programmed with a different intent in autonomous machines or relying too heavily on autonomous spacecraft at the expense of human oversight.
During the 2019 Converge2Xcelerate Conference, Wei-Kocsis described some of the advances in prototyping hardware that uses blockchain-based protocols for satellites. She described using proof of work protocols for the testing phase in the research for NASA. Proof of work relates to the type of algorithmic protocol for the consensus that must be reached amongst nodes to reconcile a transaction. Wei-Kocsis hints that a proof of authority protocol in a permissioned blockchain, where consensus depends on authorized actors to validate transactions, may be considered as well. There are important differences between permissioned public and private blockchains. Unlike public and permissionless blockchains, such as those of Bitcoin and Ethereum, public and permissioned blockchains, enable public verification of data. Only an authenticated set of users is allowed to write and manipulate data on the blockchain. Private and permissioned blockchains differ because they have additional levels of identity management tools for a determined set of authenticated users, which can in turn both read and write data.
Use Case #2: Blockchain Army
The consulting firm Blockchain Army with headquarters in Istanbul and Rotterdam City also addresses space debris as a market for blockchain technologies. On their website, Blockchain Army proposes a blockchain-based debris single management platform. In this platform, debris can be listed and categorized with transparency across agencies. The digitization of space debris on blockchain architectures reduces time spent on the reconciliation of data and communications among stakeholders.
Access to data of space debris can be controlled in a permissioned, public blockchain. This architecture would enable authenticated users to protect information sensitive to national interests and to also keep public data open for tracking.
Blockchain Army, like Wei-Kocsis and fellow researchers, also proposes the usage of smart contracts. These smart contracts automatically execute and inform other cooperating agencies of incumbent risk. According to their estimations, space debris removal represents an industry valuation of approximately USD$2.7 billion. This figure is comparable to other market studies about the industry.
The usage of blockchain architectures for space debris addresses an old problem in new ways. Experts across industries have been warning us about the need to prioritize it for decades. The research and solutions proposed by the faculty and the consulting firm converge on two main criteria.
The first criterion relates to the importance of self-enforcing smart contracts to reduce latency and friction. This switches the trust of multiple parties to autonomous architectures underlying the technology stack. The second criterion relates to the integrity and transparency of big data in a context with multiple stakeholders.
Data integrity for space debris is already increasingly popular among blockchain firms. A Space Waste Management Initiative formed by Aratos Group, Blockchain 2050 BV, LTO Network, SpaceChain UK, recently proposed leveraging blockchain to identify and manage debris.
Other important research and advances include NASA's exploration of autonomous spacecrafts for human spaceflight as well as NASA’s 2019 white paper on blockchain for Air Traffic Management. ESA’s white paper on blockchain took a more conservative wait and see approach for Earth observation.
The need to harmonize increasingly vast amounts of data about space debris is urgent. Some of the fundamental attributes of blockchain technology are appealing as described in the use cases referenced above. Blockchain technologies may enable networking alternatives in the technology stack for space companies and agencies. Multiple variations of the blockchain stack and its components at the platform layer (for ex. consensus, algorithms, protocol, rules, cryptography), at the application layer (smart contracts), and at the level of nodes and users (validators) may be useful for space missions, exploration, and debris identification and removal.
As blockchain technologies continue to mature, private-public alliances in the space ecosystem will continue to lead us into the future. Wei-Kocsis provides us with valuable insights at the 2019 Conv2x Conference. Speaking of futures ahead, she commented the following:
“I believe the future…of computing…only [in] my opinion, is cooperative computing…people need [to] claim ownership of their data, try to make the value of their data…and their computing intelligence… The future of computing…is not only [for] NASA deep space…”
We don’t have to continue down an inevitable vortex of colossal space junkyards. We can take a look at different possibilities offered by emerging technologies like blockchain to solve a decades-long problem that may only get worse if left unattended. By raising awareness of innovative proposals for space debris, I hope that we can continue to leverage advanced and emerging technologies. A spacefaring future is both inspiring and exciting. Let's choose to create it.
Photo credits: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office. View of a hole in the panel of the Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) satellite. This hole was caused by impact from space debris.
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