If you have ever been part of a Bitcoin Q&A, it is likely that you have encountered some version of this question:
“What happens if the power grid goes down, an electromagnetic pulse wipes out our computer systems, or there is a terrestrial emergency?”
It turns out Blockstream, a Bitcoin development company responsible for both open source and commercial Bitcoin technologies, has probably been asked this question as well and has been doing something about it.
Blockstream launched the first Bitcoin satellite in August 2017, but with the recent addition of its fifth Bitcoin satellite, it now offers worldwide coverage. What is a Bitcoin satellite? These are satellites that continuously broadcast the Bitcoin blockchain around the world for free. They allow Bitcoin transactions to be sent from anywhere in the world with the appropriate satellite equipment and also allow a full node to operate from anywhere with the appropriate equipment as well.
Bitcoin satellites go far beyond a contingency plan for a terrestrial emergency. They are actually an important component to further the ideological goals of the Bitcoin network.
Bitcoin exists to be censorship resistant money, but in order for nodes to communicate with each other, they need to broadcast transactions over the internet. Internet access is unfortunately not decentralized and not always available. This means that Internet Service Providers could interfere with access to Bitcoin for certain individuals and that individuals that live in areas without internet infrastructure don’t have access to Bitcoin. Additionally, satellites can provide cost savings and improve network stability.
Satellites are one of the only methods we have to diminish the reliance on large ISPs in the Bitcoin network. Satellites can also be connected to mesh networks — direct device to device networks — to create a Bitcoin network that is more robust and independent from ISPs.
Blockchain networks, including Bitcoin, represent a fundamental re-imagining of how we structure our systems and networks. The goal is to eliminate the ability of any party to interfere with common networks that the whole of humanity uses, to create something that is truly resistant to direct manipulation and as such can be trusted in ways none of our current technology infrastructure can be. This is the inherent goal of the blockchain and cryptocurrency movement, and the inclusion of satellite nodes brings the Bitcoin blockchain one step closer to that goal.
It is important to recognize that this technology is a real-time experiment in how to create a new type of system and that this experiment holds tremendous implications for the entire human societal structure. While this experiment is still a long way from this conclusion, the inclusion of satellite relay nodes into a decentralized network is a new and important tool. It represents the implementation of a new form of thinking that transcends the mindset that guided our technology development in the 20th Century. Technology development is now guided by a different ethos than that which built the modern tech giants, and it is a fascinating time to watch the changing of the guard.
In many ways, the development of Bitcoin and other decentralized networks was presaged by the centralization of modern technology companies. The history of technology development is marked by a period of centralization during initial development and then decentralization during the integration of that technology. The technology put in place by large industrial tech players set the stage for Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies, and these new technologies are introducing the inevitable decentralization of our current systems.
As we watch satellites launched into our night sky streaming data about humanity’s first decentralized digital currency, it is a moment to stop and appreciate something truly new. Regardless of the outcome of any of this, or the prices, it is a wonder to watch something unfold that has never been attempted before.
And looking back this might be,
One small step for Bitcoin,
One giant leap for Mankind.