Blockchain goes extra-terrestrial  | FT Alphaville


An other-worldly blockchain press release crash-landed into the our inbox this week. It contained some somewhat sigh-enducing sentences such as: 

SpaceChain’s vision is to remove barriers and allow a global community to access and collaborate in space.

And:

Ultimately, it will mean that there will be more opportunities for businesses/start-ups in the UK/EU to participate in the space economy, thanks to blockchain.

And:

SpaceChain is a community-based space platform that combines space and blockchain technologies to build the world’s first open-source blockchain-based satellite network, allowing users to develop and run decentralized applications in space.

(Not, apparently, for all those times you’re hanging out in space trying to develop and run decentralised applications, but rather for those times you’re hanging out on Earth thinking: “I’d like to run a decentralised application in space”.)

But this doesn’t look like just another rip-off crypto project that’s about to rush off into outer space with all your money. SpaceChain has just announced that it has received funding from the European Space Agency, no less, under the agency’s “Kick-start Activity” funding scheme. Just 60,000 euros, but still, this is Europe’s answer to NASA. Also the company’s CTO is the well-respected Jeff Garzik, one of the early bitcoin developers. So we thought it would be worth trying to find out what this is all about. 

The Singapore-based company says that its purpose is “to bring more security to the transmission of digital currencies and smart contracts by using a distributed satellite network and multi-signature transactions”. Ie, it’s about making those famously “unhackable” blockchains even more unhackable, by putting some of the nodes (ie the connection points sitting inside computers that do the processing and maintaining of the transaction records) into space. 

SpaceChain says it has “launched and flight-tested two blockchain nodes into space in the past 12 months”, which are still orbiting Earth (!) and has even got what it says is a geospatial tracking feature that lets you watch the node orbit the earth in real time. We thought launching a satellite was quite expensive, and probably outside the budget of a project like this.

But according to Garzik, there has been “an exponential drop in the cost of access to space”, with “nanosatellites” like theirs being launched via “ride-sharing arrangements” (that’s rocket-ride arrangements, FYI). The cost of doing this launching these 10cm cuboid nodes into space is therefore (rather perplexingly): 

Under $1M per launch, trending towards under $300k.

As for the reason for propelling these objects into Earth’s orbit, Garzik explained:

Having the node in space makes physical access to the node highly improbable which reduces possible attack vectors, and independent space-base power supply and connectivity makes the blockchain infrastructure more robust.

So maybe this all seems legit, after all? Gives “when moon?” a whole new meaning? 

It’s worth pointing out here that even though SpaceChain didn’t do a regular ICO, it did run a “private sale” of its tokens for institutional and accredited investors (which is what many in cryptoland now do because it gets you round pesky regulators’ complaints about selling to unwitting retail investors). The token is now worth about a quarter of a cent on crypto markets, having crashed by a, er, astronomical 99.5 per cent from a peak of almost 50 cents back in the crypto-manic days of early 2018. So moon might have to wait another day.

But even if the project is legit and didn’t rip off retail investors, that doesn’t mean it’s not silly, and indeed we can’t help feeling it’s all a little gimmicky. We thought the whole point of a decentralised distributed ledger — and the geographical diversity inherent in that — was to make attack vectors highly improbable.

Also, the idea is to create a multi-signature cryptocurrency wallet — ie a crypto wallet that requires the signature of multiple private keys before funds can be transferred — and for some of those of those private keys to be held in a satellite in outer space. But what happens if the satellites get damaged? Or if there’s some technical problem? Or if some bad actor attacks or takes possession of the satellites? 

They have a solution for that. Per the release: 

The funds in the wallet remain safe even in the event of a connectivity failure due to the fact that the two ground-based signatures can still complete the transaction.

Ah yes. So you don’t actually need the extra-terrestrial satellite, but it’s nice to have it. 

SpaceChain isn’t the first blockchain project seeking to go extra-terrestrial — far from it. There have been a whole host of projects competing to advance blockchain in space, like Nexus, BitSpace, Spacebit, to name but a few.

It’s also not the first company to think of putting a satellite into space to safeguard against earthly attacks — a company called Cloud Constellation raised $100m at the end of last year to launch a network of data centres built on satellites in orbit, saying it was “eliminating the risk [of data breaches] associated with terrestrial infrastructure”. 

But we can’t help wondering why the biggest cloud providers in the world, like AWS or Mircrosoft Azure, whose very business models depend on not having data breaches, reckon that having a geographically diverse network of data centres on boring old Earth is secure enough. 

Attack of the 50-foot Blockchain author David Gerard sounds about as convinced by SpaceChain as us, anyway: 

The idea is a dumb ICO idea of the sort that sounds like it was composed by sticking pins into a dictionary. The amazing bit is that they seem to be serious about it. I mean, good luck to them, but still nothing about this makes any sense. 

We’ve updated this story since being told how much it does actually cost to launch blockchain nodes into outer space. 


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