Zero-Trust 4 Zero-Gravity, Ep. 4: The Blockchain in Space

On today’s episode Dave welcomes Professor Hasshi Sudler. Professor Sudler is an adjunct professor at Villinova and an expert in Cybersecurity and Blockchain. Dave and Professor Sudler discuss how Blockchain is being applied in space, why it’s important, rockets exploding, and so much more.


Dave Pearah (00:09):
Hi everyone. This is Dave Pearah, CEO of SpiderOak, welcoming all of you to the latest installment of the Zero Trust 4 Zero Gravity podcast, where we interview thought leaders, executives at companies, academics and all sorts of interesting folks at the intersection of space and cybersecurity. And I am especially pleased to introduce our guest for this episode, Professor Hasshi Sudler, who we ran across and then were on panel with, at least my colleague and Matt Erickson was on a panel with. And he said, “You’ve got to talk to this person. You have to have him on the podcast.” And he’s graciously agreed. So let me throw it over to you Professor Sudler to give a little bit of the background of why and how you sit at that intersection.

Hasshi Sudler (00:59):
Well, thanks Dave. And thank you very much for inviting me on to this podcast to discuss some of the work that we’re doing, as it relates to BlockChains and space with you. A little bit about my background. I am currently an adjunct professor at Villanova University. I teach in a couple of areas at the university. One is in cybersecurity and the other focuses very specifically on BlockChain technology and we see these relate somewhat cause cybersecurity and BlockChain are all about securing information, for the users.

Hasshi Sudler (01:32):
Aside from the research that I do at the university and in teaching, I also run a software company called Internet Think Tank. It focuses on cybersecurity. And we’re also beginning to who delve more deeply into the applications of BlockChain in a variety of fields, space, the legal field, healthcare. So we’re very interested in exploring the applications of BlockChain in a wide variety of use cases. And applying it to space is a rather interesting in very rapidly emerging field. So we’re leaning very heavily into what the potentials are for applying BlockChain in space and, from a research perspective, understanding the limits of BlockChain in space. So we make sure that if we’re going to use this network for any purpose, we can rely on it, given that space is very much a harsh environment.

Dave Pearah (02:25):
You know, when I tell people that I lead a software company that uses distributed ledger or private permission BlockChain for cybersecurity, I get plenty of strange looks because BlockChain and Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies seem to be indelibly blanked. And then we take it to a whole other level of puzzled looks when I say in space. So I wonder if you run across some of that same challenge or hill to climb when it comes to explaining to folks that these unique and different concepts and it’s not just about currencies and flying around the earth.

Hasshi Sudler (03:03):
Absolutely. There’s three major hurdles when we talk about BlockChains and space. The first is decoupling Bitcoin from BlockChain. So we have to first get past that, because people have heard Bitcoin. They may have not heard of BlockChain. Second is the hurdle explaining what BlockChain is. It’s not an easy technology to explain, certainly not within a few minutes. And once people get the sense of what BlockChain’s about, then the big question is, well why BlockChain in space? What, value is BlockChain providing in space? And to really unpack that particular answer, what I really talk about is the need for satellites to be able to transact information between one another. We know satellites capture a wide variety of very useful and unique information. Some of that information is about earth other is about celestial events that are happening. We’ve certainly seen very important and powerful telescopes that we have launched.

Hasshi Sudler (04:02):
And what we’d love to be able to do is to take some of this unique, raw data that these satellites are acquiring and be able to transact some of that information from one satellite to another satellite that might find that information useful, could mix that data into its own data that it’s acquiring to be able to then send that to its respective owners. And we have to consider too, the wide variety of satellites out there are owned by different companies and different countries. So it would be great if we could find a way we could make transactions between satellites with inter satellite communication, very reliable such that satellites do not necessarily need to trust each other, but they still can feel free and have a reliable way of transacting that information to each other, so that we can get the most out of the data that our satellites are acquiring.

Hasshi Sudler (04:55):
Satellites are getting smaller as well. And because they’re getting smaller, they’re getting cheaper to send up into space. And that’s a very good thing. We can get satellites that can be very performant and do some very useful things with small form factors. At the same time, as these satellites get more specialized, we find a need for these satellites to rely on one another. One satellite could do one job particularly well. Another satellite may be very quick to do something else very well. But if they operate in a loose form of a constellation, where they can rely on each other for some information and transact that information, we find that to be a very powerful model going forward, and can also help individuals monetize satellites themselves.

Hasshi Sudler (05:43):
So now creating satellites is not just about fulfilling a mission. It’s potentially about collecting very useful data that other satellites may find quite useful in the future, in their missions. So we find there’s a very unique opportunity going forward. And we’d like to really help fulfill the needs of that by introducing BlockChain network, but also make sure that the BlockChain is stable, in order to do that for satellites.

Dave Pearah (06:10):
Well, especially in what we call SWaP-constrained places, right? So size, weight, and power. I mean, space is pressing all those buttons. So most of SpiderOak’s clients in space are on proliferated LEO types of applications. Now sometimes they deploy SpiderOak tech on the ground or on the payload or on the bus, on the satellite itself, but size, weight, and power constantly come up. And one thing I find that I have to constantly explain is, yes I know that for Bitcoin, there’s a lot of energy. People just recall in the news, all these farms of servers and GPUs and HPCs, computing new coins. And it’s like, no. You don’t have to do all the things that Bitcoin does in space. And we certainly aren’t doing proof of work in space, at least for the cybersecurity application that SpiderOak does. I’m just curious if you could tell us about those SWaP-constraints and how that relates to some of the work that you’re doing in orbit right now with the Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket.

Hasshi Sudler (07:17):
Sure. And you’re absolutely right. Introducing a consensus model like proof of work would be very difficult, simply because of the huge energy requirements that proof of work demands. You would drain the batteries of the satellites very quickly. So we have to move away from a proof of work model to other types of consensus models, and one could entertain proof of stake or one could introduce what we’re using, which is proof of authority. And proof of authority is essentially a way of using the reputation of the minor or the owner of a particular node, such that that individual must maintain good security for their satellite node. They need to maintain certainly good behavior integrity in supporting the BlockChain. So the moment we start talking about an individual who has to abide by certain rules, we are talking about a private BlockChain. So it’s not the traditional public BlockChain that we see with the Bitcoin BlockChain or Ethereum.

Hasshi Sudler (08:16):
It is a private BlockChain for which a consortium of members would admit individuals as validators, as supporters of the BlockChain, who can properly support it with good integrity and secures their systems. So our experimentation uses proof of authority, which is low power and is very fast. So we can do block times as short as one second, even a fraction of the second, within milliseconds. And we can really get a good sense of how quickly the satellites can communicate with one another and process transactions. The unique problem of course, with a space to space network is that these satellites are moving and they’re moving fairly quickly around the earth and the earth is fairly large. So you would have to have enough of these satellites moving around in low earth orbit to be able to see each other frequently enough, in order to replicate the data and synchronize with one another.

Hasshi Sudler (09:19):
If you have too few satellites, then you will have large latency and lag in synchronization between nodes. And therefore, you may have a bit of lag in processing the transactions across all the nodes on the BlockChain. So we certainly have moved to proof of authority to deal with the power issue. We also now have to work with latency and with synchronization timing as another constraint that is very serious for us, because people do expect not only that their information is uploaded and synchronized across the BlockChain in the fastest manner, but also that it remains secure. So we cannot process transactions with too few nodes seeing each other, relative to all the nodes of the BlockChain simply because they cannot see each other while they’re orbiting around the earth. And maybe they’ll see a neighbor within the BlockChain network once every 90 minutes. That obviously is a constraint. So we are calculating what’s the minimum number of BlockChain nodes that we need in order to make a relatively high performant BlockChain network in space.

Dave Pearah (10:27):
Can you tell us a little bit more about this nonprofit, Teachers in Space, and the Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket and what you’re doing on it? That’s really exciting.

Hasshi Sudler (10:38):
Absolutely. So Teachers in Space, which is headed by Elizabeth Kennick, she’s the president of the nonprofit organization. And Elizabeth Kennick and I, we actually go way back. We used to be colleagues at Morgan Stanley, back in the 1990s. And we certainly moved in different directions in our careers, only to come back and for me to find that she’s involved in space-related activities. When I was an undergrad at Villanova University, I was also very engaged in space-related research at that time. So I was very excited to hear that she had been driving towards putting a satellite into space on the Firefly Aerospace rocket. And I was, at the time, doing research on BlockChain. And one of my students, in his graduate paper, was investigating BlockChains in space. It was very interesting topic that we wanted to explore and we saw some other organizations doing some very early stage investigative work.

Hasshi Sudler (11:41):
So I thought, well this may be a great opportunity to really partner between Villanova University and Teachers in Space and have the BlockChain that we’re doing at the university hosted on Teachers in Space Serenity satellite. That’s the name of their satellite. And we could put this together with other experiments that Teachers in Space had designed, have it put on the Firefly rocket and launch it into space. And the launch would put it into low earth orbit for about 30 to 60 days. That would be plenty enough time for the university to do some experiments against that network, to see how, at least from a ground station to a satellite communication perspective, how we could update information to that node in space, how that node can synchronize with ground nodes on earth. So what we did, is we partnered. So Villanova University has been working with Teachers in Space, really over the past year and a half to develop the Serenity satellite with the BlockChain node on that satellite.

Hasshi Sudler (12:46):
And we have been working closely with Firefly to get our rocket launched into space. There was an attempt to launch the rocket in the space back on September 2nd, 2021. It was the very first launch for Firefly to attempt to launch their first vehicle ever into space. And that’s a very challenging thing to do, is launching the very first rocket. So the rocket did not completely get into this space. It took off from the launchpad very nicely, flew for about two minutes, but after a while, there was some anomaly with one of the engines that caused the rocket to go into a bit of a tumble. It was [inaudible 00:13:27] little control. So the ground station at the Vandenberg Space Force Base did detonate the rocket before it went any further. We found-

Dave Pearah (13:35):
Now, did you watch all this live, Professor Sudler? Were you watching and following this live?

Hasshi Sudler (13:40):
I was. I was there watching it, holding my breath, and hoping it would get to orbit.

Dave Pearah (13:46):
No, all that work. That must’ve been heartbreaking. I’m not making light of it. I’m just trying to put myself in your shoes, where you put all this emotion, time and effort and just like, no.

Hasshi Sudler (13:57):
We certainly knew the odds were that something might go wrong on the very first launch. I mean, no other rocket company has ever successfully launched a rocket on the very first go. It took SpaceX many times to get the first rocket successfully launched into space. So we said, “Look, we’re going to take this gamble with Firefly and everyone else who’s involved.” We were there, emotionally invested with Tom [inaudible 00:14:25], from Firefly and everyone else, in hopes that it did get into space. But it did not. And we didn’t take that badly. We said, “Look, we’ll go back to the drawing board, build another Serenity satellite,” that Teachers in Space is building now. And we rebuilt our BlockChain and we’re including some additional experiments as well, for the second go.

Dave Pearah (14:48):
And what do you plan to have that go up?

Hasshi Sudler (14:48):
That is currently scheduled for around April or May timeframe. Now the schedule is, right now, awaiting Firefly to confirm it. They’re going through some just management adjustments in preparations and working with the US government. So once they have everything complete and they get an all clear from the government to go ahead and be ready to launch, we’ll be ready with our satellite.

Dave Pearah (15:17):
Well, what’s the one thing that you’re most interested in? Because I’m guessing you have simulated latency, power and all sorts of other restrictions on the ground. You’re not waiting just to see what will happen in space. But you must have this one win graying thing in your head, like I wonder if X will actually work well or performantly in space. What’s the one thing you want to see proven or disproven?

Hasshi Sudler (15:42):
Yeah. One of the things that we’ve been looking at on earth is how the BlockChain is going to communicate, first of all, with the ground. And we know that as the satellite comes into view, we will have an opportunity to start talking to it at a certain point and it will be overhead for some period of time. And then it leaves you. We want to make sure that, as we see the satellite rise, we’re able to communicate our information from the ground nodes. We have about four ground nodes on the AWS server, where we’ll then be able to that information to the satellite and get information back. And one of the important things we really want to see work is just the loading of smart contracts. Can we successfully load these smart contracts from the ground to space?

Hasshi Sudler (16:35):
And perhaps even slightly before we can see the satellite, the timing of when we can start talking to the satellite as it’s orbiting around the earth is a really important question. Because it’s all about timing. How much time do I actually have to communicate with this satellite? And if the satellite is setting and going out of view, if I’m in the middle of a transaction, what will happen to my transaction? Will it just fail? Will it reverse itself? So really want to look at those edge cases, when we’re just beginning to see the satellite and when the satellite’s going out of view, if we’re in the middle of a series of transactions, which one of those transactions will be dropped? Which ones will be process correctly? And for the very first test, and again we’re only dealing with one node space and it’s the simplest test that you can do, is to really see how the satellite in the space is going process our transactions as it’s really coming into view and leaving view.

Dave Pearah (17:33):
Now, you’re not just a researcher, engineering professor, you’re also an author. I’d like to talk a little bit of your contribution to a book by the name of BlockChain Impact!. And I’m sure a big part of that book was explaining to folks that BlockChain and Bitcoin are not synonymous, but you contributed a chapter to that book. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Hasshi Sudler (17:57):
Absolutely. The BlockChain Impact! is a great collaboration of many authors, all of them specialists and BlockChain technology in a variety of ways. It was consulted by Christian de Vartavan, who pooled us all together. And I wrote one chapter in the book that covers two projects that I’ve been working on at the university. One of the projects being the space BlockChain project. The other, applying BlockChain to contact tracing for COVID-19. And this particular book really helps to highlight some of the diversity of use cases that BlockChain can be applied for. Certainly COVID is a very timely issue that we’ve been dealing with. I started a Tiger Team at the university, the moment we realized in 2020 that this was a serious pandemic and everyone needed to find solutions for ways that we could help society manage through it until at least a vaccine was identified. Contact tracing became an important tool to help people understand who are they coming in contact with?

Hasshi Sudler (19:05):
There were some solutions that came out from Google and Apple, for using with your mobile phones. And we thought that’s great in terms of using mobile technology, but we thought it was really important to have the underlying network be a BlockChain, because it really helps to improve the security of people’s information. You take away a lot of the work that the cell phones need to do, and you really have the BlockChain manage that information instead. So you can use smart contracts to essentially detect who has come in contact with whom and alert you if you’ve come in contact with someone who later identified as being COVID positive. So that’s certainly a piece of research that we’ve launched and we continue to investigate the effectiveness of using BlockChain for these types of healthcare applications and for contract tracing, for future pandemics as the world evolves into them.

Hasshi Sudler (20:01):
The other part of the chapter dealt in detail about the launch and these BlockChains that we’re doing for the satellite. And it breaks down specifically the issues that we’re looking at for the first launch, which would be a single satellite talking to a number of BlockChain nodes on earth. But also projects what we’re looking to do going forward. Beyond this first launch, we’re looking to then do several satellites in space that interact and transact with one another. We’ll start with a small constellation of, say, three nodes, three satellites that will then transact with one another, plus communicate with the ground station. So altogether, we really map out this roadmap of what we’re trying to do with a very simple test and projecting out further to more complex tests of BlockChains in space.

Dave Pearah (20:52):
Just to round out the discussion, can you tell us a little bit some of your work at the Internet Think Tank?

Hasshi Sudler (21:01):
Yeah. So Internet Think Tank is a company that I developed, actually, since the year 2000. This was a time when I was living in working in Japan. And I started with my company there. And we really focused a lot in the early days of web technologies and creating very interactive, rich web experiences on the web. Now that’s fairly commonplace today, but back in the year 2000, that was very new, cutting edge technology. So I’m very pleased to be a part of really pioneering the use of rich web interfaces for the web. We sharpened our focus in the company in the latter years, to really helping to support companies to secure their web applications. Because cybersecurity has become an extremely important theme for web applications, particularly for e-commerce. So we’ve been focusing a lot on cybersecurity. Now we’re currently starting to pull into BlockChain, as part of our portfolio of products and services that we work on. And we’ll be looking at combining both the security aspects of with BlockChain and looking at how we can introduce BlockChain products in a variety of industries that have very strong security as part of it.

Dave Pearah (22:19):
Well, excellent. Any parting thoughts or comments?

Hasshi Sudler (22:23):
I think we’re in a very amazing space right now. The space economy is growing in emerging very, very quickly. And we’ve seen huge leaps and bounds in terms of humans, citizens, now going into space. So I think we’ve seen an inflection point in terms of how space is developing and maturing fairly quickly. One of the most important things that I look at from an entrepreneurial perspective, as well as from a research perspective, is really helping to establish a very core set of infrastructure that we’re going to need as we expand into space. We have internet will be in space. We’re going to need BlockChains space as well.

Hasshi Sudler (23:06):
And as we start seeing more people live in space, more missions performed in space, around asteroids and out as far as Mars and beyond, we’re going to need ways in which we can transact information reliably across different nodes, satellites owned by different entities, that will really help to transact and move information and even pay for that information for everything that we’re doing off of earth. So I think this is a really exciting time to get that infrastructure in place. We’re happy to be a part of it.

Dave Pearah (23:37):
Yeah. And I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it is for me to meet a fellow traveler on the weird intersection of space, cybersecurity and BlockChain. And I’ve learned a lot, just on this talk with you. So thank you so much. And to our listeners, stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Zero Trust 4 Zero Gravity.