But when the plan comes from a team including a Google X engineer and the co-founder of the first private mission to reach the moon, the project suddenly seems a lot more feasible.
The idea behind CryptoSat — which was indeed first outlined in a November 2017 paper — is to build a prototype nano-satellite the size of a coffee mug and launch it into outer space, where it can act as a perfectly isolated and secure cryptographic module.
Once the concept is proven — sometime next year hopefully — an entire constellation of CryptoSats can be launched to orbit the Earth, providing blockchain infrastructure that can be used for everything from mining to timestamping documents.
While it isn’t the first project to combine blockchain and space — Blockstream and SpaceChain do as well — CryptoSat has some unique features and an impressive core team.
As private space programs scale up, it’s become surprisingly affordable to build a ‘CubeSat‘ using off-the-shelf components, and then book some spare capacity on a launch to get it into orbit. There are more than one-thousand nano-satellites flying about up there.
The project is the brainchild of two Stanford graduates: SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub, 34, and the Chief Technology Officer of Anjuna Security, Yan Michalevsky, 38. The pair got chatting a few year’s back over a cup of coffee about Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs) — which is the most secure part of computing infrastructure. TEEs use tamper proof-hardware to provide strong protection for things like cryptographic keys.
Down here on Earth, there’s always the danger that someone able to get physically close to the hardware could steal keys using sneaky cache timing attacks, or doing tricksy things by observing its electromagnetic or acoustic signals. To guard against this, many people invest in expensive Hardware Security Modules (HSMs) to store keys and securely sign transactions and certificates. They cost anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000.
But for a comparable amount of USD, the pair realized, you could fire the entire thing into space where the data and computations would be totally protected from adversarial physical access and be almost as immutable and untouchable as the Bitcoin genesis block.
Michalevsky’s company deals in this sort of hardware security on earth. He believes the costs of a satellite stack up to HSMs. “This alternative of launching simple satellites into space can be potentially even cheaper than that,” he said, adding: “It can provide what we hope is better security, because nobody can get to this satellite in space, while being not more expensive necessarily.”
While a crypto satellite can be destroyed, the whole world would know the instant it has been tampered with. Communications between it and the ground can be monitored, and any rogue spacecraft approaching the CryptoSat in orbit would be picked up by the North-American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) — which monitors the position of everything up there and makes the information freely available on the web.
Winetraub estimates the cost for a launch to be “less than $100,000 and dropping,” explaining further:
“The idea is that if you can provide a root of trust that is literally in outer space, you have something that has an unprecedented level of security because this is a fully tamper-proof Trusted Execution Environment.”
Winetraub has worked on “quite a few satellites out of Israel” and said he’s been fascinated with space for as long as he can remember: “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved building robots. So building a robot that goes to outer space and to the moon is my personal ultimate challenge. How do you make all the parts work together in such a hostile environment?”
In 2009, he was attending the International Space University Program at NASA Ames — trying to figure out how to use the caves on Mars to support human colonies — when he first heard of the Google XPRIZE.
The initiative offered a $20 million prize to the first privately-funded team to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon. Winetraub founded SpaceIL with a couple of friends and set about raising $100 million to make Israel only the seventh country to go to the moon. Their robotic mission, Beresheet, launched on April 11 2019, and while it did make it to the moon, it was not entirely a success.
“We traveled a quarter of a million miles and in the last few miles, we had an error that eventually made the main engine shut down,” he explains. “And we smashed against [the moon.] I would say every startup wants to make an impact. We’ve certainly made one.”
No one is entirely sure what survived from the load after the crash in the Sea of Serenity. The spacecraft was carrying thousands of tardigrades — microscopic creatures that can survive in space without food or water — and a physical copy of Wikipedia, compressed into tiny images and engraved into nickel plates. So who knows, he may have started a whole new civilization on the moon.
CryptoSat is just one of Winetraub’s many projects. He’s also trying to find a cure for cancer by researching how to intercept cancer cell communications and is preparing a second moon mission “to get there and do it right.” Beresheet 2 was announced last week, and will launch in 2024, with two landers and an orbiter.
The idea for CryptoSat was first presented in a paper as part of the ‘Wild and Crazy section’ of the 2017 ASHES hardware security conference. It remained simply an interesting concept until another Stanford graduate, Gil Shotan, 35 — then working at Google’s self-driving car project — convinced them to transform it into reality. “Nowadays I’m an engineer at Google X where I kind of launch crazy moonshots,” Gil laughed, adding: “But my biggest contribution was in acquainting these two.”
Cryposat is incorporated as a public benefit corporation and the Silicon Valley based team has already created detailed designs and begun gathering price-quotes. But while they have plenty of ideas, they still need to nail down the particular use case to demonstrate for the initial trial. “We’re in talks with several organizations in honing down a specific application that we can use to launch a prototype,” Shotan said.
CryptoSat can act as a trusted party for a whole host of cryptographic applications, such as electronic voting which requires a trusted party to perform computations that can’t be corrupted. The satellite could be used for crypto mining in a trusted environment, or timestamping of documents for copyright purposes. The infrastructure can also interact with other blockchains, and validate them in the same way that some private chains sync occasional blocks with public chains like Ethereum to provide additional proof that the ledger is trustworthy.
Shotan compares CryptoSat to the foundational infrastructure of something like the GPS, which is another space-based network that enables a user’s location to be precisely identified, and which powers a raft of applications from maps to courier tracking and Uber Eats:
“The idea here is to try and create the GPS of blockchain, basically an infrastructure for the future of blockchain. We think that this can really revolutionize the way that cyber applications are done today.”
One use case, that’s deep in the technical weeds, is Trusted Setup Ceremonies for zero-knowledge proofs. The information generated in a ceremony can undermine the security of entire cryptocurrency networks. Daniel Bar, 37, a venture partner from Collider Ventures, who has been consulting with the team explained:
“You have stuff like Zcash, or Tornado Cash, all the ZK snarks applications they rely on having this ceremony to set up this originating case. Basically, by having this setup, positioned in space, you don’t need to have a trusted ceremony because this entire device is essentially your trusted execution environment.”
CryptoSat has some competitors in space. Another project that also dates to 2017 is called SpaceChain, which launched its own cryptocurrency called SPC and has nodes in orbit. While the last significant milestone on the project’s website dates to December 2019, earlier this month it received a $600,000 grant to continue to develop “decentralized satellite infrastructure.”
Blockstream, of course, pioneered the use of blockchain in space with its Blockstream Satellite network — which broadcasts the Bitcoin blockchain 24/7 around the world to protect against network interruptions. However, Michalevsky explained that CryptoSat is very different, not least because Blockstream leases satellites for its network.
“We’re more at the infrastructure layer and something like that is more of an application,” he said, adding: “One potential problem with that is how do you trust that satellite? That satellite is shared between multiple applications and controlled by a third party.”
“We can potentially help them achieve their goal in the sense that we’re providing a trusted satellite that’s specifically built and designed for the cryptographic and blockchain applications and provides a very high assurance in terms of how it’s built and the fact that nobody tampered with it.”
The CryptoSat’s tiny size is both a blessing and a curse. While it limits the amount of processing power it can carry, the device’s relative simplicity also makes it easier to trust and to verify it hasn’t been tampered with. “It’s so small and so cheap and easy to control everything you need to know about the satellite,” said Winetraub, adding that the more complicated the device, the harder it is to monitor:
“For example, how do you validate that there’s no hardware that was added before the launch? All those things become more complicated as it grows. I think small is the name of the game here. If we use modern processors and make sure that we have sufficient computer power, and sufficient communication services, I think it’s actually better to build a constellation and be able to make a secure network out there.”
However communication with the ground is CryptoSat’s Achilles’ heel, with uploading data from Earth a slow and limited process. “The two-way communication is actually a challenge,” said Winetraub. “We’re used to fast ethernet connecting everywhere in the world in milliseconds with very large bandwidth. In space this bandwidth becomes more of a limitation.” Winetraub concluded:
“We’re still kind of stuck in the internet of the 90s. So we’re looking into what applications we can do to just use the satellite as a proof of trust, and to sign the principle cryptographic transactions, and not all of them, because we just don’t have enough bandwidth.”
One day, the team dreams that this network of satellites could actually take the place of blockchain mining by providing a wholly trusted, tamper-proof validator in space. Instead of decentralizing a network using blockchain to make it trustless, the idea is to have a ledger in space that is totally trustworthy, explains Michalevsky.
“That’s a potential application, although a bit futuristic and a bit radical, but the satellite can be the sole ledger that attests to the transaction history. In that sense, you don’t need the mining anymore.”
Whether or not that particular idea takes off remains to be seen. Winetraub believes the first step is to get the Cryptostat prototype into space. He added that the team would love to hear from anyone interested in partnering on the project, or with ideas for potential applications.
“We’re looking at later 2021 to actually launch this prototype and have the communities start approaching it, communicating with it and seeing if we can get some traction,” he said, adding: “We are looking to connect with entrepreneurs, academia, and the blockchain community to explore further how this can be used as an asset that is out of this world, basically.”
Visit cryptosat.io for more information
Based in Australia, Andrew Fenton is a freelance journalist and editor covering cryptocurrency and blockchain. He has worked as a national entertainment writer for News Corp Australia, on SA Weekend as a film journalist, and at The Melbourne Weekly.
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