NASA and researchers at the University of Akron are looking at the use of blockchain technology to help spacecraft ‘think’ for themselves to avoid colliding with space debris.

Right now, unmanned spacecraft operating in deep space typically have to rely on scientists back on Earth to monitor floating debris and then send instructions for evasive action. This takes a long time and there is a risk of message disruption. Blockchain could enable the spacecraft to take these actions to avoid a collision without any human input.

That’s the premise behind a research project involving The University of Akron’s (UA) Dr. Jin Wei Kocsis, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and NASA. It uses blockchain technology to enhance space communications and navigation.

This technology has been most prominently known for its ability to record bitcoin (digital currency) transactions in a completely secure, decentralised manner, eliminating the need for a single database, such as a bank.

Spacecraft that can ‘think’

Wei Kocsis, the recipient of a three-year, $330,000 Early Career Faculty grant from NASA, is leading an effort to develop a Resilient Networking and Computing Paradigm (RNCP) that uses the blockchain technology’s underlying smart contracts (self-executing contracts, allowing for unmediated transactions) from the digital currency world to create spacecraft that ‘think’ on their own – allowing them, for example, to automatically detect and dodge floating debris.

“In this project, the Ethereum blockchain technology will be exploited to develop a decentralised, secure, and cognitive networking and computing infrastructure for deep space exploration,” Wei Kocsis says.

“The blockchain consensus protocols will be further explored to improve the resilience of the infrastructure.” she adds.

“I hope to develop technology that can recognise environmental threats and avoid them, as well as complete a number of tasks automatically,” Kocsis comments. “I am honoured that NASA recognised my work, and I am excited to continue challenging technology’s ability to think and do on its own.”

More time for analysis

Wei Kocsis hopes this technology will not only allow spacecraft to complete more tasks and collect more data, but will also give scientists – no longer so occupied in anticipating and responding to environmental threats – more time to analyse that information.

This is the first time the NASA has explored the application of blockchain technology to space communications and navigation.

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