We Beamed the Communist Manifesto to Space Using Bitcoin

Satellites and some nascent tech gave Motherboard a unique opportunity.

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Mar 11 2019, 4:02pm

On Wednesday at approximately 10:20 AM Eastern, the final paragraph of The Communist Manifesto beamed down from a satellite array covering most of the world, and anyone with the right software and dish setup could receive it.

I sent the passage—the part that says, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains”—to space, and then back down to Earth, using Bitcoin. My reasoning for doing this was… Well, why the hell not? We live in a world where this is possible, my friends.

To do this, I used a satellite service from blockchain technology company Blockstream. In 2017, Blockstream launched a service that beams the Bitcoin blockchain down from satellites covering North and South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. This could, for example, be used as a backup link for Bitcoin businesses in case the internet goes down. In January, Blockstream released an API that added the ability to broadcast messages using the satellite service and the “testnet” version of the experimental Lightning payment network for Bitcoin.

“Testnet” means “free,” and it helps that, as Coindesk noted, a Twitter user going by “MediumSqueeze” created a website (spacebit.live) that makes sending messages very simple. All you have to do is enter some text, click “send message to space,” generate a testnet Lightning wallet using the link on the page (which gives you some free testnet Bitcoin), and then paste the generated Lightning invoice into the wallet. (Update: the service moved to mainnet on Monday night, meaning it is no longer free to use.)

To confirm that my class consciousness-raising message had made it to space, I reached out to Blockstream community manager Dan Williams, who goes by “grubles” online. WIlliams helped me configure my own satellite-dish-Linux-Frankenstein rig in 2017 and has recently been monitoring for messages from space. He received my message, he told me, and it’s far from the only one.

bitcoin satellite message
Image: Dan Williams

“The most fascinating message I’ve received was what appeared to be a journal from an anonymous developer in eastern Europe who shared his growing interest in Bitcoin and the technology surrounding it such as Blockstream Satellite and the Lightning Network,” Williams wrote me. “I woke up early in the morning due to a thunderstorm and remembered my satellite hardware was exposed, so I went outside to move my computer, half asleep, and noticed the message. It was a surreal experience, and really reminds you that we’re at the cusp of an evolution in technology.”

Someone with a satellite dish and the right software can indiscriminately save the entire stream of messages beamed down by satellites, Williams said, or they can select for messages meant just for them if they are encrypted using a public encryption key. “It’s similar to Twitter in a way,” Williams wrote me. “I can imagine tweets being broadcast via the Satellite API, or a new more decentralized type of social media service.”

I’m not entirely sure that this kind of thing is really preferable to, say, tooting on Mastodon or using Signal to send an encrypted message right now—although it would make a great plot point in a post-apocalyptic thriller—but I can say I’ve never felt more cyberpunk.

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Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Blockstream's service has moved from testnet to mainnet, and is no longer free.