Data centers are huge, energy-hungry, and often criticized for their significant environmental impact. However, what if we could significantly address these issues by moving these data centers to space? This sci-fi idea could be real sooner than you might think.
A typical data center on Earth consumes a vast amount of electricity, and in many regions, this energy is still generated by burning fossil fuels. This results in substantial CO2 emissions, contributing to the global climate crisis. By relocating data centers to space, we could leverage clean, renewable solar energy, available 24/7, to power these facilities.
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The European Commission Horizon program has contracted Thales Alenia Space to lead a feasibility study for data centers in orbit, exploring whether such a move could help countries reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
In space, solar power is not only abundant but also more efficient. On Earth, sunlight is diffused and absorbed by the atmosphere, reducing the energy that reaches solar panels. In space, however, solar panels can capture the full intensity of the sun’s rays, increasing their energy output. This means data centers in space could be powered more efficiently and reliably even than solar data centers on Earth’s surface, reducing the strain on Earth’s energy resources.
In fact, space-based solar power is so much more efficient that the UK government is considering putting solar power stations in space and beaming that power down to antennas using radio waves.
The cost of launching payloads into orbit could reach as little as $33/kg by 2040, according to a report by CitiGPS. Once established, space data centers’ maintenance and energy costs could be significantly lower than their terrestrial counterparts. Companies like SpaceX are consistently working on technologies that make space launches cheaper and more reliable.
With solar power providing constant energy and the vacuum of space offering natural cooling, operational costs could be significantly reduced in the long run. As electricity prices continue to rise, with data centers in London reaching $1 for every watt of power consumedthe potential cost savings are substantial.
The Natural Cooling Advantage
Data centers produce a lot of heat, and a significant portion of their energy consumption on Earth goes toward cooling. In space, the dynamics of heat management change drastically. Although the vacuum of space is an excellent insulator, it allows for heat dissipation through radiation.
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Radiators can be designed to maximize this effect, turning the challenge of space’s insulating properties into an advantage. For example, on the International Space Station’s thin metal cooling plates dump waste heat from within the station as infrared light.
It’s Faster and More Secure
Light travels faster in the vacuum of space than it does through the fiber optic cables that currently carry our data. After all, the universal speed limit, Cis the speed of light as measured in a vacuum.
This could mean faster data transmission times between space-based data centers and their earthbound users. Additionally, data transmitted through space is also potentially more secure. Interfering with or intercepting data sent via satellite is significantly more challenging than tapping into terrestrial data lines, offering an additional layer of security. Intercepting laser-based point-to-point communication between data centers in orbit would pose an even greater challenge.
Better Edge Computing
Edge computing is about processing data as close to the source as possible, reducing latency and bandwidth usage. As our world becomes more connected — from self-driving cars to IoT devices — the need for edge computing grows. Space-based data centers, combined with a network of communication satellites, could provide global edge computing capabilities, offering low-latency services to even the most remote locations on Earth.
To the Moon?
So, are we really about to move our data centers off Earth and into the cosmos? The idea might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Microsoft has announced a new space software developer kit for its cloud platform, Azure, and a partnership with space-based infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) start-up LEOcloud. This initiative aims to deliver space-based cloud services onboard Axiom Space’s space stations. At the same time, IBM is developing a partnership with Sierra Space to create a space computing infrastructure.
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The initial use case for these technologies is to provide cloud extension and edge processing in orbit, enabling the growing number of companies operating space hardware to manage their devices more efficiently. However, as the technology matures and becomes more widespread, it’s not a stretch to imagine entire data centers deployed in orbit.
Dennis Gatens, CEO of LEOCloudenvisions a future with a strong demand for dedicated data center facilities or space stations in low Earth orbit, cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon), and even beyond. These data centers could be accessible to users on Earth and space, providing a hybrid cloud option for both.