Bitcoins in Space!

Bitcoin is headed for the stars. Here's how.

Low Earth Orbit

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Bitcoin has become pretty popular across the planet, but what about in space? One of the core developers of the bitcoin protocol has been working on a system that could create a version of the bitcoin network, up in orbit.

Called BitSat, the program will see a collection of 24 satellites fired up into space, providing global coverage from low-earth orbit. Each of the satellites would function as a bitcoin node, processing data in the bitcoin network. But why do it?

Information Wants to Be Free

When he originally published the idea, back in November 2013, bitcoin guru Jeff Garzik said that “information wants to be free”. He wanted an alternative communication network for bitcoin.

“One of the ways we may keep bitcoin healthy and free is finding alternative ways to distribute blockchain data. This provides resilience in case the P2P mesh network is attacked,” he said at the time.

What kinds of attack might those be? One typical assault on the bitcoin network is a Sybil attack. In that scenario, a collection of nodes operated by a third party surrounds a victim node and passes it false information. Sybil attacks can be launched on lots of different notes at once, creating confusion and seeding false information in the network.

One of the ways we may keep bitcoin healthy and free is finding alternative ways to distribute blockchain data.

A Sybil attack could be used for all kinds of mischief. This ranges from simply convincing the network that you haven’t spent bitcoin when you actually have, through to refusing to relay blocks and transactions to your bitcoin node, effectively disconnecting you from the network.

One way to solve this problem is to create a single source of truth for bitcoin information. The operator of the network would ensure that the information coming from the satellites would be accurate. Putting them up in space would be a way to get that information to as many people as possible because satellites are great at beaming information over a wide area.

Each of these satellites will save the entire bitcoin blockchain, providing a backup for the earthbound bitcoin network. They will receive updates with new blockchain data from selected ground stations, during 15-minute passes overhead. They will then independently verify that information to make sure that it is accurate.

Bitcoin in a Cube

Satellites cost an incredible amount to launch, but one way of keeping the costs down is to make them relatively small and standard -sized. The company behind BitSat, Dunvegan Space Systems, is using a standard small satellite form factor, called CubeSat. This is a cube, measuring just 10cm x 10cm.

Each satellite will last five years on average. Dunvegan reckons it can get an individual satellite up there for $1m, or $19 for the lot. One way to do that is to piggyback the launch of these small satellites onto larger payloads.

This may all sound like science fiction, but Garzik is serious about the plan, and the launch phase is scheduled for 2016. Dunvegan has signed a contract with Deep Space Industries, which will be building the nanosatellites. Four satellites are anticipated for the initial launch phase, with more to follow later.​

The idea of a single source of authentic information is important as a network becomes more crucial to its users. The global positioning satellite network is a good example—anyone needing accurate geolocation information just has to point their receiver to the skies and read the signals coming from the GPS network, to work out where they are.

If and when this network finally launches, a third party vendor will probably provide downlink information from the satellites. Real bitcoin enthusiasts could set up their own satellite receivers, though, to get the information directly without having to pay for it.