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Space tech: Transforming satellite launches with blockchain

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satellite over earthA new space age is dawning. Space is no longer confined to government and military agencies like NASA and its contractors, but expanding rapidly via private commercial companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Cloud Constellation Corporation and more. It’s a much wider field now. This entrepreneurial space age will change the course of human history.

Technological advances by the private commercial sector are challenging the traditional historic space practices and models by reusing rockets, building efficient spacecraft, performing cheaper launches with ride-share opportunities and smaller satellites. Launches delivering satellites into Earth’s orbit provide a wide range of services from earth observation (Landsat 8), weather predictions on Earth (GOES -17), Space weather (Solar Dynamics Observatory), and satellite internet constellations (Starlink). With the emergence of the commercial sector, each of these verticals like launch providers such as SpaceX — launch services, ground terminals, satellite manufacturers, satellite operators and satellite service providers — will have a role to play.

To make it even more interesting, NASA’s announcement of returning to the Moon has sparked renewed interest, as evident from the rapid growth in the space tech landscape. With discussions of asteroid mining, Mars colonization and return trips to the Moon in addition to other scientific explorations, one can say, “The Space Gold Rush is on.”

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In fact, Morgan Stanley recently estimated the revenue generated by the global space industry may increase to $1.1 trillion or more by 2040. Currently, the cost to launch a satellite has declined to about $60 million, from $200 million, via reusable rockets, with a potential drop to as low as $5 million. And satellite mass production could decrease that cost from $500 million per satellite to $500,000.

Some of the recent key announcements around space industry:

Blue Origin

“This vehicle is going to the moon,” Bezos declared, showing off a giant, spidery ship reminiscent of the Apollo era’s lunar module, only sleeker and cooler and way, way bluer. “I love Vice President Pence’s 2024 lunar landing goal. We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago.” He also said,“It’s time to go back to the moon. This time to stay.”

SpaceX

Set to Launch 60 Satellites for Starlink Megaconstellation. SpaceX designed Starlink to connect end users with low latency, high bandwidth broadband services by providing continual coverage around the world using a network of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit.

At IBM, we have a long history of working with NASA on space exploration missions and in the space industry in general. Fifty years ago, IBM created a mainframe that helped send men to the Moon. The Apollo missions, landing the first two astronauts on the Moon in July of 1969 ranks as one of the great engineering achievements in human history. Check out this great read about the more than 4000 IBMers who took part.

A few years back, IBM partnered with the German space agency, DLR, and Airbus to send an actual astronaut assistant powered by IBM Watson to ISS (International Space Station) — a project called Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN (CIMON).

IBM and Cloud Constellation Corporation are working together to build a range of prototype solutions from Edge Computing in Space to exploring how blockchain can optimize the logistics and supply chain for the space tech industry. Cloud Constellation, in partnership with LeoStella, is also focused on deploying SpaceBelt Data Security as a Service (DSaaS). Ten satellites will be designed, manufactured, integrated, and tested at LeoStella. A launch service provider and launch site will be selected by Cloud Constellation, and the satellites will be transported to a launch vehicle for final integration. The launch service provider launches the space vehicle carrying the satellites and once they are delivered into orbit, the controls are handed to Cloud Constellation’s satellite operations center. Additionally, the regulatory authorities such as FAA, FCC, U.S. State and Commerce Departments, as well the insurance companies are all part of this ecosystem. Now, one can only imagine the complexity behind the logistics among all these parties working together to get the SpaceBelt into orbit.

To deal with the above complexities such as contracts, order tracking, parts assembly, shipments, design and test documents, test results data, near real-time data, workflows for approvals, auditing, launch and control, we need blockchain!

Applying blockchain technology to the use case above would look something like this:

Networks – Consortium of participants, peer-to-peer network
Participants – Satellite service provider, satellite manufacturer, suppliers, launch service provider, mission control center and satellite operations center
Channels – Access control, allows isolation of transactions between different participants
Assets – Data structures such as satellite parts, documents, and others
Smart Contracts – Algorithms, business logic
Transactions – Invocations of algorithms

Let’s take a look at this example using IBM Blockchain Platform:

Solution setup and configuration

  • First of all, a business network is created among the following participants: Satellite service provider (Cloud Constellation), satellite manufacturer (LeoStella) and its suppliers and subsystem contractors, launch service provider, missions control center, satellite operations center, regulatory authorities (FAA, FCC, Export Controls), insurance company and launch data access for third parties research purposes — sort of a consortium. Each of the participants get a node which has a copy of ledger and smart contracts.
  • Channels are created between the participants. In this case, the satellite manufacturer can also create separate channels among its suppliers and subsystem contractors.
  • Assets such as parts and subsystems are defined.
  • Smart contracts are created. For instance, when the subsystem contractor captures a failure during integration testing, the contract rejects the further steps until the failures are corrected.

Satellite launch solution

  • Cloud Constellation signs a manufacturing e-contract with a satellite manufacturer (LeoStella).
  • The satellite manufacturer signs further contracts with suppliers and subsystems contractors.
  • Procurement of parts from suppliers, design and testing done by subsystem contractors and documents are generated.
  • Satellite manufacturer (LeoStella) assembles and ships satellites to the launch services provider.
  • The launch services provider (SpaceX) integrates satellites on the launch vehicle and hands it over to mission control.
  • Furthermore, a smart contract is in place to check on pre-launch conditions such as weather. In the case of high winds, the launch will be aborted.
  • Once all satellites are placed in the approved orbit, the satellite operations center (Cloud Constellation) take over its regular operations.
  • Channels are defined among the participants:
    – Regulator authorities (FAA, FCC, Export Control) can interject at any point during this project and raise a flag.
    – The insurance company has access to certain data.
  • Launch data is made accessible via application program interfaces (APIs) for research institutions, and all interactions such as data download are tracked.
  • All of the above activity is logged in the form of transactions in an immutable ledger database for auditing purposes to all the authorized interested participants.

This digitized data can be monetized and help improve future satellite launches both for commercial providers as well as for researchers. This data can be augmented further by machine and deep learning techniques.

Blockchain helps by building trust between the participants, reduces risk of tampering, has major potential to reduce costs, accelerate processes and transactions, and ultimately shortens the time to market. More importantly it will help to make it safer for us to go back to Moon, Mars and beyond into deeper space one day!

One last quick note, I would like to extend a special thanks to Dennis Gatens, Chief Commercial Officer, and Jeff Snyder, Chief Technology Officer, from Cloud Constellation corporation team.

Deploy the IBM Blockchain Platform across multiple environments

IBM Distinguished Engineer, CTO Space Tech, Industry Solutions - IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software

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