Post 03: SAT-1 & Blockchain. Presenting at the February Sofia Crypto Meetup

The SAT-1 Initiative presented its work at the Sofia Crypto Meetup on February 28. The monthly event, held at Betahaus, highlights the events in the blockchain world while also serving as a platform for new ventures in the sector and discussions on various topics.

Since blockchain is one of the technologies the Initiative looks to implement in space missions, we took part in the event and presented our own concept for a dapp (distributed app) along with potential use cases of blockchain in the aerospace sector. In this post we’ll elaborate on the dapp itself, along with some hints on what we have in store with regards to blockchain.

[video of event pending]

Why blockchain?

Interest in blockchain technology has virtually exploded since early 2017. Much of the interest was, and continues to be, hype — expectations that blockchain will solve all of mankind’s problems, numerous users believing cryptocurrencies will be dominant in a mere months, others still trying to develop applications based on a variety of blockchain platforms — with or without success, initial coin offerings (ICOs) and attempts to get rich quick.

While we pretty much enjoy the hype, for it gives impetus and popularity to this still hard-to-grasp technology, we realize blockchain is a game changer that is yet to display its full potential, and that’s not just a rosy prophecy. This is a technology that enables accountability, immutability and, when necessary, privacy, in a way no other technology can. There is a reason why heavyweights like IBM and JPMorgan Chase have expressed interest in it — it will allow them to dramatically streamline their bookkeeping and data management processes while ensuring thorough verification of data.

In aerospace, qualification and assurance is an indelible part of space project management. Every component, subsystem, system, test and effort must be verifiable and traceable — if something goes wrong, the problem must be tracked down to its source. When a payload is to be launched in space, the launch provider must have ironclad assurances that this payload will be functional and worth the expense. There must also be full certainty that it will not malfunction dangerously, or otherwise pose a hazard if its destination is the International Space Station.

You definitely don’t want your devices going Galaxy in microgravity. (Credit: NASA)

All this makes blockchain a particularly attractive technology to simplify and guide the process of growing something from an idea to a physical payload flying in space. Additionally, it can find uses in providing improved data security in high-performance payloads, logging satellite subsystem activity, or providing redundancy for satellite command and data handling subsystems or even launch vehicles.

Some of these use cases will become part of our own activities. However, our first blockchain solution is a distributed app (dapp) related to satellite communications. We presented it at Sofia Crypto Meetup to great responses and interest, and here we’ll shed a bit more light into it.

The Comm Dapp

In line with our (unofficial) policy of purposefully creative project names, we called our proof-of-concept dapp “the Comm Dapp”. For now, at least.

One of the most reasonable uses of blockchain in practical aerospace projects is in the management and verification of space-sourced data. Verification is precisely the purpose of this dapp.

At present, several hundred small satellites orbit the Earth at Low Earth Orbit (LEO, below 2,000 kilometers altitude). Each of them can “dump”, or transmit, the data it collected on its last orbit to a receiver — a ground station which detects the transmissions of the satellite and stores them in a database.

Most satellites only communicate with their own ground station, built specifically for their mission. It is possible to receive data from other ground stations of radio amateur volunteers; however, those stations may not always be tuned to the appropriate frequency or be accessed by a satellite operator in another country.

The Comm Dapp is to connect various ground stations across the globe to a blockchain-based grid, where each station functions as a node thanks to an Ethereum virtual machine. In particular, we seek to use Ethereum Classic Development Team (ETCDEV)’s Sputnik virtual machine, which is best suited for embedded devices and Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications. There are several advantages to such a network:

  • The data packets dropped by a satellite are fully verified with regards to their source, time of delivery and content .
  • If the satellite is in the visibility circle of more than one station, there will be an additional layer of verification. The network is also accessible from everywhere in the world.
  • Using smart contracts, the station grid can function as an efficient, global decentralized receiver network. A satellite operator can request a smart contract to obtain incoming transmissions from particular stations along the satellite’s flight path. These stations may change with each orbit, ensuring permanent visibility of the satellite.
  • That, in turn, could reduce the data delivery requirements of the mission itself. With increased opportunities for downlink, the satellite’s operator can optimize the communications budget and potentially dedicate more power to payload-related tasks, boosting the usefulness of the satellite.
  • The grid could provide a virtually constant stream of verified data from a constellation of satellites.
  • The ground stations can use smart contracts or grid operations to monetize their activity. Each station can receive a bounty for the amount of data received & processed, which can partially mitigate power supply and staffing costs. This is especially valid if the station grid outsources downlink operations to a major satellite or constellation operator. For the station operators, this allows the elimination of intermediaries which collect data and resell it. For the operator, costs will be reduced as only an uplink station will be necessary in mission planning. Downlink will be carried out by numerous stations globally, instead of several expensive in-house stations that incur costs in the long-term.
No ICO here. Just a use case.

The main motivation behind the Comm Dapp are to create a more streamlined means of satellite downlink and reduce mission costs related to communications. However, the Comm Dapp can kick-start the entry of blockchain technology in the aerospace sector, decentralize and spread space-related activities and eliminate potential future intermediaries and managers of satellite data. This will ensure a more equal and secure access to space, particularly satellite data.

Setting it up

The Comm Dapp will require a development cycle along with a prototype network of ground stations. In its initial stage, those are simple radio transmitters verifying basic data packets incoming from a drone or an emitter with a varying range. In its full-scale version, this will be a network of ground stations — some in Bulgaria and others abroad — that receive, verify and store data from real amateur radio satellites such as BEESAT-3 or Funcube.

Once the dapp is fully developed and deployed on the prototype/trial network and all critical issues have been fixed, it will be released by the SAT-1 Initiative. The dapp could be used for our first CubeSat mission, Efir, which will also send telemetry and housekeeping data to stations across the globe.

More updates on the development of the Comm Dapp are coming soon . We’re thankful to the organizers of Sofia Crypto Meetup for giving us the opportunity to present, as well as the BitHope foundation for setting up the donation campaign for our satellite.

See you on the next Meetup for updates.