Introduction to Interplanetary Cryptocurrency
Written by David Vandervort
Have no doubt that the commercial space flight industry is poised for enormous growth. The launch capabilities of SpaceX and Blue Origin are just the beginning. Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are two companies with plans to mine asteroids. Virgin Galactic intends to transport people into space for whatever purposes they, themselves, choose. Even tiny Luxembourg has announced that it will invest 200 million Euros in asteroid mining (https://www.australianmining.com.au/news/luxembourg-back-space-mining-ambitions/). NASA served an important role in history. The future is much bigger.
The first waves of people who go to Mars and the asteroids will probably have lives in some ways similar to oil rig crews. They will be highly paid because of the hardships they endure, including dangerous work and long separations from home. The agency or company they work for will make sure they have the things they need to stay alive. This will not be everything they want, though. Back during the Civil War, whole camps of vendors (called ‘sutlers’, except the ones who were called ‘prostitutes’) would set up shop near the armies. They (the sutlers, not the prostitutes), sold things like coffee, tobacco, soap and other items that the Army did not supply in the amounts the soldiers wanted.
In the early years of our expansion into space, there won’t be so many sutlers but the forces that attract them will still exist. People will still want to buy stuff that is hard to get through the usual channels. Let’s imagine an example. Let’s say that you are an asteroid miner who wants to stay out a little longer but needs to order more oxygen to do it. You can’t go down to the corner store and buy oxygen tanks. You’re in the asteroid belt. The nearest store might be a 100,000,000 miles away. Your cell phone service stopped when you left Earth’s atmosphere. You might be able to access the Web, more or less, if you don’t mind the hour wait between the moment you click on a link and the time the page starts to load.
Communication is a big problem in space but, for the sake of this thought exercise we will assume that there are satellites and buoys that will allow signals to get through from planet to planet to asteroid and so on, once or twice a day. That’s enough for us to come up with a solution. It starts with Bitcoin technology. If all we needed to worry about were payments, Bitcoin would be an excellent vehicle. However, because we also need to record obligations — also known as contracts — Ethereum is a better choice for the interplanetary economy. In fact, using Ethereum, we can have a mix of local and Stellar economies, all working in harmony (as much as commerce does, anyway).
Imagine a time when there is a small base on the Moon, a real colony on Mars and numerous ships and stations run by various corporations scattered all over the solar system. Earth has many currencies, physical and digital. The Moon functions with Earth currencies and may, in fact, default to using Bitcoin. It takes approximately 10 minutes for a new block of transactions to be added to the Bitcoin blockchain. It takes about 1 1/4 seconds for a signal to reach the Earth from the Moon (not counting the effects of atmosphere and satellite relays). This means that transactions between the Earth and the Moon can take place in very close to real time.
Anything farther out than the Moon is going to find Bitcoin problematic. The length of delays means that communicating transactions will take longer than the time required to mine new blocks. Inevitably, the blockchains will fork, meaning that Earth will have a different ledger of transactions than Mars, which will be different from the asteroids, etc. This is not conducive to consistent bookkeeping. It means that the same Bitcoin could, conceivably, be spent on different things in different places. This is not the way money is supposed to work. You spend it once, and then it’s gone.
Ethereum based contracts are a much stronger option. The chains will still fork but by attaching money to a smart contract, then sending the contract across space, it will be possible to keep accounts in sync. What is sent to Earth will no longer be spendable on Mars, and vice versa. At least, it will not be spendable on the planet or celestial body of origin IF the contract that transfers the money specifies where it can be spent (In theory this should be possible. I haven’t tried coding it yet but it sounds like a fun experiment). But, you ask, doesn’t inserting a location into the blockchain compromise privacy? I suppose it does but, really, how much is your privacy harmed by telling the world you bought a tank of oxygen from someone on Earth?
So now our hypothetical asteroid miner has a realistic option for buying extra oxygen. First, open your wallet software. If you’ve done business with the oxygen sellers before (or if you’re a smart astronaut who downloaded the necessary templates before leaving on this ridiculously dangerous journey out to the back of extra-planetary beyond), just click on the seller, fill in some amounts and click send. The contract is auto generated and the message sent to the nearest communications buoy, which sends it on to the Ethereum blockchain on Mars. Your account on Mars is debited, the money is tied to the contract.
After Mars, the contract arrives on Earth. The order for oxygen is entered, the funds automatically transferred. Whether the blockchain has forked or not makes no difference because funds that were being used on Mars stayed local to Mars unless transferred in a contract. It works the other way, too. The seller sends the oxygen, signs the contract and it then goes back to the original sender, sans money. Everything is fine. No one suffers from lack of oxygen. Mining continues and the economies of both places grow. This all implies that the economy of Mars was seeded in the first place by money transferred by contracts. Now that we know it will be needed, it can be done.
The sheer size of outer space changes the way economic transactions will take place. I don’t know if the people designing launch vehicles and dreaming of colonizing Mars have considered the economic infrastructure that will be needed. Fortunately, it looks like we have the technology to build a workable system already. This is a good thing. I don’t want to have to tell the people selling me oxygen (from 34+ million miles away) that the check is in the mail. I’ll breath much easier after I send them a smart contract backed up by hard (digital) currency.