Reach for the stars: Why payments tech should be out of this world

January 13, 2022 | By Sophie Hares

A decade ago, the idea of blasting tourists into orbit, mining asteroids, or building galactic colonies sounded like a pitch for a big-budget sci-fi movie.

Yet today a burgeoning space economy is prying open doors to the final frontier. Companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are joining national space agencies in a renewed bid to expand humanity’s horizons.

In fact, Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef commercial space station aims to open its “business park” for clients by the second half of the decade to help drive economic activity and build new markets in space.

It’s a long way from the original space race when superpowers competed to pitch a flag on the moon. With nearly $450 billion spent on space activity last year (that’s almost 20 times NASA’s annual budget), the challenges now revolve around building infrastructure for people to travel, work and even live — with access to the goods and services they need — in outer space.

For the first time, the annual CES tech show in Las Vegas reserved a corner of its universe last week for the latest breakthroughs in the space technology. Sierra Nevada Corp. showed off its 30-foot Dream Chaser space plane that it hopes will eventually shuttle cargo and crew into space before landing back on a commercial airstrip.

Its inflatable Large Integrated Flexible Environment, or LIFE, space habitat will form a core part of the Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef. By building a galactic supply chain, Sierra Nevada could make it easier for others to also build their own space stations.

With all this commerce and scientific progress buzzing about lower orbit, one key question arises: How will people pay for what they need in a swift and safe way in space when using Earth-based systems? If it takes three minutes for a signal to travel between Earth and Mars at the speed of light, your Martian mocha might get cold.

There are many challenges to overcome to expand humanity’s reach in the galaxy, but space payments could be a helpful starting point to drive economies, services and plenty else outside of Earth’s orbit.

Moreover, as human activity expands in space, the need for payment solutions may expand as well, such as a need for device-to-device payments that can be thousands of miles apart (like a mining rig on the moon making a payment to a satellite for internet connectivity).

Cross-border payments on Earth can be difficult and costly, and building a galactic payment system would be far more complicated, according to Issidor Iliev, a Mastercard senior vice president for digital assets and blockchain. He holds a patent that tackles the communications latency between Earth and remote areas — the Arctic or, say, the asteroid belt.

"If every industry contributes to making space more accessible in their way, collectively we can make this dream a reality and hopefully better civilization for it.”
Issidor Iliev

Iliev had seen increased involvement from the private sector in space exploration and new technological advances, such as reusable rockets, that would make space more accessible to businesses, governments and individuals in the coming decade – and thought Mastercard could play a role. Though he was working as assistant corporate treasurer at the time, he was able to develop the germ of the latency patent during one of the company’s innovation exercises.

The few seconds it would take information to travel to the moon, a mere 240,000 miles away, would likely cause authorization issues for payment providers and consumers due to the challenges in transmitting timely information over cosmic distances, Iliev says. And they could be exacerbated by lack of consistent connectivity in space, where local systems may need to be able to operate even if temporarily disconnected from global information networks.

“Payments are just part of the bigger picture to inspire humanity to explore new horizons,” Iliev says. “Becoming a space-faring civilization is not only an insurance policy for humanity but can also lead to innovations that improve life here on Earth. If every industry contributes to making space more accessible in their way, collectively we can make this dream a reality and hopefully better civilization for it.”

Sophie Hares, Contributor