This article was originally published in Fortune on July 4, 2023.
In March, a crypto company announced a Bitcoin “treasure chest” hunt—in space. The firm, LunarCrush, plans to send a rover over 200,000 miles to the moon this year with a private key etched on the device. Whoever is the first to find the rover can use the private key to collect 62 Bitcoin worth around $2 million at current prices.
In March a crypto company announced a Bitcoin “treasure chest” hunt—in space. The firm, LunarCrush, plans to send a rover over 200,000 miles to the moon this year with a private key etched on the device. Whoever is the first to find the rover can use the private key to collect 62 Bitcoin worth around $2 million at current prices.
While the celestial contest smacks of yet another crypto-related publicity stunt—others include artist Jeff Koons’s plan to put an NFT-linked sculpture on the moon—a growing number of crypto companies are treating the intersection of digital assets and space as a serious long-term business opportunity.
In late June, crypto startup Cryptosat announced it is working with a developer on a “space wallet” designed to secure crypto in outer space. And a number of other firms, like Blockstream, SpaceChain, and Filecoin, have projects to integrate blockchains with space technology or to use space’s very remoteness to secure decentralized ledgers.
Space for blockchain
Yan Michalevsky, one of the cofounders of Cryptosat, says blockchain can intersect with the cosmos in two ways: “blockchain for space,” or using blockchains to enhance and improve on existing space technology, and “space for blockchain,” or using cosmic tech to improve blockchains themselves.
Cryptosat falls into the latter camp. Founded by Michalevsky and Yonatan Winetraub, who both received doctoral degrees from Stanford, the startup has sent two satellites the size of coffee mugs into space. Both are equipped with small computers that can perform simple computations like safeguard crypto stashes.
“Given the fact that they cannot be accessed physically,” Michalevsky told Fortune, “that can protect against very sophisticated attacks that are becoming relevant, especially in the blockchain and Web3 space.”
Cryptosat’s plans are a space-brd twist on the crypto industry’s ongoing quest to help owners take drastic steps to secure their assets. For a layperson, the idea of using the remoteness of space to secure crypto may feel like overkill, but it could offer additional peace of mind for financial institutions or privacy-focused developers.
SpaceChain, another crypto startup cofounded by former Bitcoin developer Jeff Garzik, similarly has nodes, or small computers, racing through the cosmos. The company has attached seven to existing satellites, and three are on the International Space Station, according to CEO Cliff Beek.
“A blockchain node or any other node in space that is off the terrestrial infrastructure creates an air gap for any access that’s unauthorized,” he told Fortune, noting how how difficult it would be for a hacker to access a computer racing above Earth at approximately 17,000 miles per hour. A SpaceChain node weighs 100 grams and measures about eight inches by eight inches, according to Beek.
Then there is Blockstream, a Bitcoin-focused company founded by Adam Back, an early member of the cypherpunks who corresponded with Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto, which is also making space-related investments.
The company, which raised $125 million in January to expand its Bitcoin mining operations, is leasing four satellites to broadcast Bitcoin’s blockchain, or its decentralized databr, across Earth.
“One of the promises of Bitcoin is the ability to improve global access to remittances, finance, international transfers, and things like that,” Back told Fortune. However, he said, in some countries the cost of a high-speed internet connection can outpace the average monthly wage, and a satellite dish is comparatively cheaper.
Back’s vision is that someone can buy an old laptop, connect it to an inexpensive satellite dish, and then broadcast Bitcoin’s data locally. His hope is that “entrepreneurs and businesses in different parts of the world where bandwidth is more expensive will use this infrastructure to make it economically feasible,” he said.
Currently, Blockstream’s satellites only broadcast the Bitcoin blockchain but don’t update it. The firm is actively working on making its satellites able to receive data in the near future, Back told Fortune.
Blockchain for space
Space can potentially help secure blockchains and provide a launching ground to broadcast blockchain info, but some believe distributed ledgers can improve on existing space technology—and even secure potential communiqués from our alien neighbors.
In May, the SETI Institute (short for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) announced that it had partnered with Protocol Labs, a core developer behind the Filecoin project, a decentralized storage network.
Specifically, SETI ran a fire drill to simulate how to best respond if a satellite intercepted a transmission from extraterrestrial intelligence. An alien message would be an earth-shattering revelation, and whoever controls access to the message, SETI argues, controls one of the world’s most important collections of megabytes.
Hence, the institute decided it would be best to store the message with Filecoin, a cloud provider not under the sole control of any one authority. “They’re very sensitive to not wanting to be censored and or to have anything deleted or tampered with,” Jennifer Bell, marketing lead at Protocol Labs, told Fortune.
This focus on tamper-proof and open data is the main value proposition for space scientists, according to Franck Marchis, senior astronomer at SETI and chief science officer at telescope startup Unistellar.
“I believe that space is going to be the next big thing, and if we want to have young, smart, motivated people to work in space, we need to train them and we need to give them access now to the data,” he told Fortune.
And beyond aliens, defense contractor Lockheed Martin is also looking to Filecoin to secure inter-satellite communications. Satellites often relay data between each other, but in the highly nationalistic and competitive arena of the cosmos, trust in the integrity of a message relayed over a satellite grid is difficult to maintain.
To this end, Lockheed plans to launch IPFS—short for interplanetary file system—nodes into the heavens to test out the feasibility of using blockchain technology to secure satellite transmissions with the help of Filecoin affiliate Protocol Labs. (IPFS is the protocol that underlies the Filecoin project.)
“The U.S. and its allies are investing very heavily and very legitimately in lunar and interplanetary travel, and IPFS—it has interplanetary in its name—was designed for this use case from day one,” Anshuman Prasad, partnerships lead at Protocol Labs, told Fortune.
The firms Fortune spoke to have already carved out space in outer space for crypto and, despite ongoing regulatory uncertainty, are planning more launches this year.
Lockheed is readying its LM 400 Technology Demonstrator spacecraft for launch in 2023, and aboard will be IPFS nodes, according to the Filecoin Foundation. Cryptosat is looking to shoot its third satellite into the cosmos by the end of 2023, and SpaceChain is also planning to send a node into space during a similar timeframe. “We try to do one launch a year,” CEO Beek told Fortune.
The number of companies experimenting with blockchain in space are small but persistent and, while crypto may not be able to escape the withering eye of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, it can escape Earth’s gravity just fine.
About the author
Ben Weiss is an experienced journalist and writer based in New York City. He holds an M.A. in Journalism and International Relations from New York University, where he was awarded the Goren Fellowship in Global and Joint Program Studies. Ben also received the Zenith and Sidney Gross Memorial Prize in Journalism from NYU. Ben is currently a crypto writer at Fortune and has worked for prestigious publications such as Harper's Magazine and PBS NewsHour. He has also contributed to WIRED, Slate, and Gothamist.
Filecoin, the world’s largest decentralized storage network, enables users to store, request, and transfer data via a verifiable marketplace. Filecoin’s advanced technology provides a robust foundation to store the world’s most valuable datasets. An alternative to costly cloud storage, the Filecoin network offers efficiently priced and geographically decentralized storage, minimizing financial barriers and allowing users to take advantage of its unmatched network capabilities. Filecoin is completely open source, enabling people from all over the world to participate. For more information about Filecoin, please visit https://destor.io.