The Impact of Web3 and Blockchain on the Space Industryby@tprstly
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The Impact of Web3 and Blockchain on the Space Industry

by Theo PriestleyJanuary 27th, 2023
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Blockchain and web3 could be used as payment in future Mars economies. The decentralization of space and the ideologies that surround Web3 complement each other to support the notion that ‘Space is for all’ The Interplanetary File System (IFPS) from Filecoin was originally designed as a decentralized network replacement for the web’s centralized backbone.

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How can web3 and blockchain, two new technologies that are more associated with grifting money from the unsuspecting and trading it for a picture of Bubbles the Chimp all whilst shouting ‘WAGMI’ in Discord echo chambers, have anything to do with space?

Well, quite a lot actually.

If we ignore the circus around Dogecoin and Elon Musk sending the digital currency into a frenzy by eluding it could be used as a form of payment in future Mars economies we can strip away the hype to concentrate on two important factors:

  • it’s a decentralized and distributed ledger and transaction protocol with a myriad of uses outside of finance
  • the decentralization of space and the ideologies that surround Web3 complement each other to support the notion that ‘Space is for all’

Blockchain protocols are themselves no stranger to new space. The Interplanetary File System (IFPS) from Filecoin was originally designed as a decentralized network replacement for the web’s centralized backbone for precisely this reason. At the moment the current infrastructure cannot support any space-based internet or file system but IFPS can.

“From the beginning, IPFS was envisioned as a technology that can make interplanetary networking possible.” — Marta Belcher, president and chair of Filecoin Foundation.

Every time you click something, that data has to be retrieved from a centralized server so if you’re on the Moon, there will be a multi-second delay with every click, as content is retrieved from Earth. The idea behind using a decentralized network is that the content can be retrieved from somewhere closer so IPFS allows users to host and receive content in a manner similar to BitTorrent. However in contrast IPFS aims to create a single global (or interplanetary!) network.

Ultimately, by minimizing the number of times that data has to be transmitted to Earth and returned to space, IPFS’s decentralized storage model will enable more efficient data transfer and communication in space. This decentralized storage model could also alleviate burdens for the amount of onboard storage capacity for spacecraft exploring planets.

Effectively, every space object could become a node in this network.

Now, there are already startups looking to create servers on the Moon to alleviate some of this but this requires shifting large data centers instead which is where IPFS has the advantage.

Lockheed Martin and Filecoin are working together to make all this a reality, we’ll soon know whether all of this holds up beyond the whitepapers.

Another company, Blockstream, wants to piggyback on existing satellite networks to transmit bitcoin to any location on Earth. It’s an ambitious attempt to use leased satellites to beam bitcoin nearly anywhere in the world. Now in beta, bitcoin users in Africa, Europe, South America and North America can already use the satellites to download a working bitcoin node capable of storing the network’s entire transaction history.

But while complex conceptually, the company believes its end result can solve a real issue facing the $66 billion network — without the internet, you can’t access bitcoin.

Unfortunately, the long-term viability of a niche project like this and the technical and hardware requirements don’t really hold up, and whilst a nice experiment the chances of it and others like it surviving the relative turmoil of the crypto markets are unlikely.

Where blockchain has better use lies within much bigger visions of space and space economies — space mining.

Mining on the Moon for Helium-3

“Soon, space will no longer just be a destination. It will be home to the new space economy, independent of Earth” — Joe Landon, Vice President of advanced programs development, Lockheed Martin

Asteroid mining and mining on other planetary bodies are already becoming a political hotbed. The US and China are now engaged in a new space race to the Moon and to be the first to mine and harvest its resources. Startups aplenty like Astro Forge want to head to an asteroid, mine rare earth minerals, process in-situ and return the goods to Earth for profit.

It is nothing more than the 21st-century equivalent of the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800's.

Politically, there is much saber-rattling about squabbling over seemingly unlimited resources which is nothing new to human nature but blockchain and smart contracts could very well resolve some of this by acting like a mining claim system.

In the United States, a placer claim grants to the discoverer of valuable minerals contained in loose material such as sand or gravel the right to mine on public land. Other countries such as Canada, Mexico, and Australia grant similar rights. In the United States, the valuable mineral in a placer claim is almost always gold, although other nations mine placer deposits of platinum, tin, and diamonds. Another type of mining claim is a lode claim.

A mining claim allows some security of tenure for the owner, providing an incentive to invest time and money developing the deposit. Mining claim laws vary from state to state, but claims staked over federal minerals follow federal mining law.

For space, no such system really exists because space is for everyone and no single entity can claim ownership. But for mining in deep space blockchain and smart contracts can replace the existing claim system. It could work like this:

  • A company sends a probe to an asteroid or celestial body. After scanning for resources and confirming the location of minerals and other precious metals it registers a claim on the blockchain — not on the entire body itself but on the area it wishes to mine.

  • It could in theory tokenize that claim and create a DAO to raise the funding to start mining operations (more on DAOs later)

  • It then secures a mining claim by way of smart contract. This contract contains the necessary details around the value of the claim and its resources, the timescales for mining the claim, and the insured value against market value at the time of extraction. This is important for later.

  • The resources are extracted but need to be refined and then transported back to Earth or some other deep space location. At this point, the value of the goods is in flux and now depends on the refinery process and the continuing market value on Earth.

Again, for profitability and insurance, the blockchain and smart contract is an immutable way to protect both the mining claim but also the value of the claim itself.

Blockchain is a mundane technology, it is infrastructure, and therefore the best application of it however boring it may be will eventually become the most critical part of any new space economy that arises.

Now we come to Web3 and the best part of this movement lies in the future application of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO) for space-faring companies and cooperatives looking to explore the farther reaches.

I’ve written extensively in the past on DAOs and their place in the enterprise setting but for space corporations it makes sense especially in the cases of asteroid mining. As an example, aDAO could be set up to initially create the funding model needed to get such a mission off the ground and secure the distribution of funding to the appropriate activities whilst also securing the fair and equitable distribution of the profits of the endeavor.

Unfortunately, again, we get to the grifters who want to exploit a legitimate use of the ideology for nothing more than the old “selling a plot of land on the moon” scam from the late 1990s.

MoonDAO’s mission is to create a self-sustaining, self-governing settlement on the Moon by 2030 to act as a launch point for humanity to explore the cosmos.

The DAO’s mission is to “decentralize access to space,” with the ultimate goal of creating its own Moon colony, according to its website. However, after raising funding through their MOONEY currency, they’ve purchased two space tourism tickets on Blue Origin so far and sent a Youtuber into orbit.

Wen moon indeed.

It’s unfortunate that the space industry now has a tainted view of what a DAO could actually achieve if properly adopted along with blockchain and smart contracts so instead we get our first taste of space piracy (interestingly, I’ve also written about the similarities between DAOs and the pirates of old too)

The ideas behind Web3 and Blockchain have a place in the space industry and we’re seeing the beginnings of both the good and the bad applications of both. What now needs to happen is their integration into the foundations and infrastructure needed to support not only the long term push to the stars but also the financial processes required to build future space-based economies and organizations.

Space is for all and the decentralization behind web3 and blockchain will ensure this happens if we let it.

Also published here.