Data centers move into space to mitigate power consumption and pollution

The exponential increase in computing may mean that extra-terrestrial processing and storage facilities will soon be needed

Illustration of a data center in Earth's orbit.Thales Alenia Space

For big problems, extraordinary solutions are needed. In light of the exponential increase in data volumes and computing, the European Commission thinks they have come up with just such a solution to reduce the energy expenditure and pollution produced by data centers. These facilities account for 10% of global energy consumption and “4% of the greenhouse gases produced by human activity, slightly higher than the global aerospace industry,” according to the University of Quebec’s College of Technology (Canada). The European Union has selected Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between the French technology corporation Thales Group (67%) and Italian defense conglomerate Leonardo (33%), to study the feasibility of the ASCEND (Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emissions and Data sovereignty) program. The ASCEND initiative is part of the Horizon Europe program and its goal is to deploy data centers in Earth orbit.

According to Sammy Zoghlami, vice president of Nutanix, a cloud computing infrastructure provider, “digital infrastructures as a whole account for a substantial part of global energy consumption, and have a significant carbon footprint. In Europe, the Middle East and Africa alone, data centers consume more than 90 terawatt hours a year, and produce emissions equivalent to 5.9 million vehicles (27 million tons of CO₂).”

Some companies are tackling this problem by turning to carbon-free energy sources. Google Cloud recently signed a deal to build a 149-megawatt solar plant located near the city of Toro in northwest Spain, and expects that it will provide 90% of the energy needed to power its Madrid-area facilities and other offices in Spain within three years. Similar Google Cloud facilities are already operating in Finland, the United States and Canada. Amazon’s logistics center in Seville (Spain) has 13,300 solar panels with the capacity to generate 5.26 megawatts, the company’s largest such facility in Europe.

But most data center companies don’t have the resources of Google and Amazon, and the growing industry is constantly demanding more capacity. This is why the ASCEND project was formulated – to demonstrate the future capacity of data centers located in outer space that can substantially reduce the computing carbon footprint by using solar energy beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Yves Durand is the director of technology at Thales Alenia Space, the joint venture charged with studying the feasibility of space data centers, with the goal of deploying them in the early 2030s. Durand says initiatives like Google’s solar power plants are insufficient. “Most data centers in Europe now use carbon-intensive energy sources. Data centers are big energy consumers – between 2% and 3% of all global consumption – a rate that is doubling every year. They will eventually account for 10% of the global total. We cannot produce enough carbon-free energy to supply the enormous data center demand, plus the demand from electric cars or hydrogen production facilities, nor can we cover the Earth’s surface with solar panels.” Durand predicts that the current demand growth rate will exceed supply by 2050, so locating data centers into space “seems like a good solution to our big energy and carbon footprint problems.”

The first big challenge will be to build such a large facility in space. “That’s why we have assembled a consortium of the leading space infrastructure specialists,” said Durand. The consortium includes Carbone 4, VITO, Orange, CloudFerro, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, ArianeGroup, DLR, Airbus Defense and Space, and Thales Alenia Space.

“We have brought together the best in each class,” said Durand, who described the need to define an optimal space architecture at an affordable cost. He says this task will be “the equivalent of building a nuclear power plant.” The Spanish Nuclear Society estimates that the nuclear power plants of today cost €4-5 billion to build.

Pointing to the International Space Stations as an example, Durand doesn’t doubt the viability of building a data center in space, and says that construction will be “fully automated – no astronauts. In fact, the project involves development of special, robotic assembly technology.” A founding principle is to design a modular facility with electronic components that can be easily transported on a reusable space shuttles. Unlike terrestrial, fiber-based communication facilities, the data centers in space will use optical technology.

Energy savings

Very low ambient temperatures in space will dramatically reduce the need for cooling equipment that consumes enormous amounts of energy. A significant part of a data center’s energy use is for cooling equipment, accounting for more than 50% in some facilities. Temperatures can be as low as -292°F (-180°C) when an orbiting object is in the Earth’s shadow.

Ascend’s initial objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of the project, in light of the goal to achieve neutral emissions by 2050. But the implications go beyond that. Orbiting data centers will become a fundamental component in future space exploration seeking to install lunar bases and launch regular missions to Mars. It will no longer be necessary to collect data in space and relay it back to Earth for storage and analysis. “It’s important to understand,” said Durand, “that we can react much faster if we have processing capabilities in space.” A message sent between Mars and Earth takes 40 minutes to go back and forth, so transmitting time-sensitive information requires another model.

Another major challenge is radiation, which affects both the physical components of the system and computing integrity. Durand acknowledges that this is a major issue, but notes that telecommunications satellite operators already have a great deal of experience dealing with the problem.

Quantum computing

Some potential uses of these space data centers have already been identified. Neural network computing and financial data centers need facilities with high processing capacities, and quantum computing requires the extremely low temperatures and zero vibration that a space environment can provide.

These centers also need to be secure from cyberattacks and other types of illegal access. “We have to envision security measures that will probably be different from those used on Earth,” said Durand.

Data centers in space already exist, although not on the same scale as those envisioned by the European Commission. The International Space Station has the HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC-2), the first computing system in space enabled with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities that has already completed 24 research experiments. The European Space Agency has also launched PhiSat-1, the first satellite with onboard AI processing that uses Intel’s Movidius Myriad 2 chip.

Other savings

Other technology located in outer space can also help reduce the carbon footprint. Any use of information processed in space can benefit global sustainability. According to Globant’s Sustainable Business Studio for Inmarsat, a global mobile satellite communications company, the world could move 10 years ahead in its decarbonization efforts if industries take full advantage of existing and emerging space technologies. According to Globant, the full adoption of currently available systems would achieve an 11.5% reduction in global emissions by 2030, a 9% improvement over the current benefit.

Elena Morettini, the lead scientist of Globant’s report, said, “From a technological and scientific point of view, the potential reduction in CO₂ emissions from satellite technologies is immense. There is no lack of innovation standing in the way of greater sustainability success – the lack of investment is to blame.” According to the report, satellite data can enable significant optimization of both passenger and freight transportation routes, as well as better detection of methane emissions.

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