J.P. Morgan has tested the world’s first bank-led tokenized value transfer in space, executed via smart contracts on a blockchain network established between satellites orbiting the earth.

The project is the latest in the firm’s efforts to combine blockchain with the Internet of Things (IOT), which previously saw initiatives in Chase Auto financing and renewable energy.  It also demonstrated how the firm is leveraging work across innovation areas as the project was first introduced to the blockchain team by the internal “FLARE” group (‘Future Lab for Applied Research and Engineering’) – a team conducting applied research on frontier technologies.

Given their multi-faceted use in everyday life, yet separation from earth-based systems, satellites presented an interesting opportunity on which to build a blockchain network that would enable a decentralized flow of data between machines.

"As part of our team’s focus on ‘Horizon 3’ projects that identify disruptive areas in which blockchain can create value, we decided there was enough here to begin thinking about what a space payments system would look like over the long term. But first we needed to prove it was even possible by testing some foundational components."

The first test case centered on building a network to execute a basic transaction from earth to a satellite. For this, the Blockchain Launch team worked with satellite company GomSpace to deploy a Consensys Quorum blockchain onto one of Gomspace’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. Crucially, this required utilizing a special installation of Consensys Quorum that was small enough to operate on low-memory devices, first tested on the ground on a Raspberry Pi.

"One of the challenges in working with devices is the memory constraints.  This is amplified on a satellite because much of the memory is reserved as a backup for the satellite itself – not for running blockchain software. So we had to get creative to be able to generate the private keys for new accounts – typically a computationally heavy process."

After executing a successful token transfer on the newly established satellite-to-Earth Consensys Quorum network, the next stage focused on executing a more complex transaction type - deploying an ERC-20 contract, a well-known Ethereum standard, to represent tokenized value on the same network. With satellites in constant orbit, the team then tested how the network would maintain the state of its ledger as the satellite moved and the connection with the ground station was interrupted.

Finally – and most importantly – they successfully executed a transaction between two LEO satellites, which validated the approach towards a decentralized network where communication with earth is not necessary. This breakthrough opens the door to a potential peer-to-peer DvP (‘data versus payment’) satellite marketplace in the long term, as private companies prepare to launch their own constellations. 

"Blockchain can facilitate a common communication and payments protocol between satellite providers, which could underpin the exchange of services between satellites, for example in the provision of continuous broadband links or to capture images and weather data using peer-to-peer autonomous contracts."

The space economy is projected to grow from $350 billion to as much as $1 trillion in 20 years*, as companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin continue to expand the role of private enterprise.

 “A core part of our business revolves around payments and so we spend a lot of time thinking about how they will evolve in the future,” said Rob Matles, head of FLARE and Global Technology Innovation Enablement. “Space exploration is becoming increasingly well-funded and presents an exciting opportunity to deploy financial technology to create a brand-new payments infrastructure leveraging blockchain.”

Back on earth, the success of the project’s decentralized approach represents a new benchmark in the rapidly advancing IOT sector, where payments between “Things” opens the possibility for a machine-to-machine economy.


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