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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

NASA Adapts Cryptocurrency Technology to Build Deep Space Networks

A test-bed being developed at the University of Akron uses blockchain technology to link computers destined for deep space. Each layer represents a node in a decentralized computer network.

Computer technology is expanding at a dizzying pace.  Things that seemed like science fiction a few years ago – from artificial intelligence to cryptocurrencies - are now common place.

It’s a bewildering landscape – but in this week’s Exploradio, we follow the thread of a new computer technology from the desktop to deep space.

Let’s start with Bitcoin.  The cryptocurrency created a speculative bubble recently, spiking from around $800 to nearly $18,000 per coin. It’s now trading at around half that.

BitCoin is just one of hundreds of digital currencies made possible by a technology called blockchain.

Lucas Mearian reports on blockchain for the trade magazine ComputerWorld. He calls it a sort of online ledger that is stored and updated by each computer in the trading network.

“The network acts as this unchangeable record because each entry has unique set of random numbers associated with it, in computer technology it’s called a hash. The data entries on that network are strung together in a series of connected blocks."  

Blockchain was developed to allow the growth of digital currencies like Bitcoin. It's transforming the fields of banking, real estate, shipping, and commerce of every kind. Now NASA is developing a blockchain infrastructure to link secure networks in deep space.

That’s where the name blockchain comes from.

Since all the computers in the network share a copy of the blockchain, there’s no way to fudge any transactions without someone blowing the whistle. That’s what makes it secure.

Mearian says blockchain is still best known for its Bitcoin use, “but enterprises, companies and even our government is beginning to look into it as a means to secure data transfer between computer systems.”

It’s speeding automation in commerce. 

And it’s heading to outer space.

Deep space communication
NASA is using blockchain to help build intelligent computer networks in deep space far from a centralized computer hub.

Rigo Roche, an engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, is building new ways for spacecraft to communicate with each other and teaching them how to think.

Thomas Kacpura, left, is NASA Glenn's advanced communications program manager. Rigoberto Roche is an engineer in the division. They're working on building a decentralized network in deep space that can use artificial intelligence to make decisions without human aid.

“So if they encounter a problem that they haven’t seen before they have to be endowed with some sort of intelligence to understand what they need to do, to either keep sending data back, or do something smart so they can continue doing whatever job they were designed to do.”

For example - you’ve got a group of satellites orbiting Mars looking for microbial life, and they saw something interesting among 100,000 pictures.  Together they can choose to send just the one image that contains the interesting information.

He says this kind of artificial intelligence is the next challenge for space travel.

NASA Glenn's advanced communications program manager ThomasKacpura's team is working on how to put machine-learning, or artificial intelligence in space so that spacecraft don’t have to rely on people on earth to make decisions.

“Right now there are bottlenecks on communication links coming back because you’re sending data over a very long distance,” says Kacpura.

He says NASA is just in the beginning stages of developing the hardware and software needed for next level, ‘smart’ spacecraft, “and ultimately the goal is to insert these cognitive technologies in the next generation space architecture.”

Despite the shades of similarity to Stanley Kubrick's HAL 9000 computer a' la 2001: A Space Odyssey, NASA’s Rigo Roche is not worried he’s going to design a renegade system.

“There’s a difference between reality and the movies,” says Roche.

Linking delay tolerant networks
Which brings us back to blockchain.

NASA is teaming up with the University of Akron’s Jin Wei Kocsis who’s an expert in cyber security, artificial intelligence, and building smart networks.

Jin Wei Kocsis teaches at the University of Akron. She's an expert in cyber security, artificial intelligence, and cognitive networking design. She recieved a $330,000 NASA grant to design a "resilient networking and computing paradigm" using blockchain.

She says the rigors of deep space require computer systems have incredibly tough hardware and software – able to both operate under low power, and make decisions based on limited data and possible delays in transmission.

“That is where the blockchain infrastructure kicks in," she says, "because we have to have a secure and effective structure to support this kind of high-level and decentralized machine learning.”

Blockchain will link the deep space network.

NASA’s Tom Kacpura is also looking at using the next generation of computer chips called neuromorphic processors that use less power by mimicking the brain’s wiring.

And will these advance systems in space retain another human attribute, a conscience?

He says, "I hope so.”

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.