The European Commission has selected Thales Alenia Space to conduct a feasibility study on data centres in orbit.
The study, named ASCEND (Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty), will explore the possibility of launching operational data centres into space. This would help to meet the growing global demand for digital services while circumventing the negative impacts of terrestrial facilities.
Thales Alenia Space will lead a consortium of experts in different disciplines – from environmental to cloud computing, and launch vehicles to orbital systems.
There are two objectives to the study. The first is to measure the carbon emissions generated by building space-worthy data centres and launching them into orbit. For this to be a worthwhile endeavor, it is critical that the carbon footprint be significantly lower for orbital data centres than ground-based ones.
The second objective will be to prove that a data centre can be built, deployed, and operational in space; and be maintained remotely using robotic assistance technologies.
The orbital data centre would be powered with solar energy. According to Thales, ‘the only link with the ground would be high-throughput Internet connections based on optical communications, a technique for which Europe has mastered the underlying technologies’.
Launching data centres into space is one strategy the EU (and businesses) are exploring for dealing with competing priorities – demand for digitisation on one hand, concern for the environmental and energy impact of building these facilities on the other. Alternatives to data centres in space include data centres in former mine shafts, and data centres under the sea.
An orbital data centre may solve some of the problems of an earthbound hyperscale campus. If it’s not connected to local power grids, a data centre would not divert necessary energy. And if it’s operating from outer space, a data centre may not impact the environment down on earth.
The announcements about the ASCEND program and Thales Alenia’s part in the consortium did not address one specific aspect: retrieving the data centres once they become non-operational. If the feasibility study is successful, and a data centre in space reduces the carbon impact of ongoing digitisation needs, then data centres can be launched. But they won’t be operational forever. Is there a plan to bring them back?
In 2021, NASA announced that as an organisation, they track 27,000 pieces of space debris – 23,000 of which are larger than a softball, but all of which could damage a satellite or spacecraft after launch.
Additional debris is added either by new launches of man-made objects into space, or by collisions. In 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft collided with a functioning U.S. commercial spacecraft, resulting in more than 2000 new pieces of space debris. In 2007, China used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, increasing the problem by another 3500 pieces of large, trackable debris and innumerable smaller ones.
If orbital data centres do become a feasible option for the future, plans should be made to ensure that they can be safely returned to Earth once they are no longer operational to avoid adding more debris to the space garbage problem.