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According to the most current information, data centers consume more than 90 terawatt hours and produce emissions equivalent to 27 million tons of CO₂ annually within the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region alone.

With such a high negative impact in terms of both power consumption and carbon emissions, finding a solution is paramount to the sustainability goals of the region. To this end, over the next five years or so, data centers may become an addition to the current infrastructure of outer space. Alongside commercial space stations and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, space data centers may soon join this celestial neighborhood, a move that could prove an ideal boost for the thriving digital economy.

What Do Data Centers Require?

In order for a data center to operate, it requires large amounts of land (area), energy and cooling. Each of these is available in abundance in space, particularly our most plentiful natural source of renewable energy: the sun.

Moving data centers into orbit would eliminate most of the energy costs associated with their operations as well as the detrimental impact such terrestrial usage has on the environment. Instead, their energy would come directly from the sun, with their cooling being, in part, a simple physiological benefit of their location in space (with low Earth orbit temperatures falling to -100°C).

Over the next decade, we anticipate exploration of and intensive work on such projects in space from service providers, infrastructure vendors, satellite companies and hyperscalers alike. These tech enablers are keen to take advantage of the vastness of the space and utilize it for data storage, processing and security, all while maintaining their sustainability goals.

In conceptualizing and constructing these space data centers of the future, a successful data center power and cooling design is a must. This will help apply the relevant cooling techniques and power distribution principles efficiently, with less energy and more productivity, and with a reduced carbon footprint as well.

Preparations Beyond the Sky

The concept of moving data centers to space is currently being fruitfully explored for its core objective of addressing data centers’ copious and growing demands on the planet’s limited resources.

In light of this exponential increase in data volumes and computing, the European Commission initiated a feasibility study, the Advanced Space Cloud for the European Net-Zero Emissions and Data Sovereignty (ASCEND) program. The investigation seeks to ultimately reduce the energy expenditure and pollution produced by data centers.

The main goal is to deploy data centers in the Earth’s orbit while considering several key factors that impact the viability of such a build on the infinite horizon. Experts hold that this facility construction will be fully automated with specially developed robotic assembly technology. Indeed, one of the principles envisioned is to design these modular facilities with electronic components that can be easily transported on reusable space shuttles.

To further reduce structural requirements, optical technology will be the foundation of data center connectivity in space. Optical networks function in such a way that storage is not required to be located in close proximity to the processing or function. This is an ideal scenario for both powering space data centers and allowing them to be more modular, flexible and distributed.

The Japanese telecom and technology firm NTT has already unveiled plans to launch a data center into space as early as 2025. The micro data center, housed in a satellite, will collect valuable data, including images and video. Rather than the more costly procedure of beaming all that information down to Earth, the space-based premise will process the information above the atmosphere.

Moreover, a Florida-based cloud computing startup is raising funds to build a series of data centers on the moon. In fact, Lonestar successfully tested its data center on board the International Space Station in 2021. NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, created to help deliver research projects to the moon, funds the company’s Intuitive Machines lunar mission.

With data centers being composed of connected servers that store and transfer digital data, space data centers will initially be geared towards remote data storage and disaster recovery, allowing companies to back up their data and store it in space.

Computing in a Space Environment

Currently, satellite-based data centers leverage data from the countless sensors orbiting our planet, aggregating it in a more cost-effective and focused approach. According to experts, the memory aspect needed to transfer data from space down to earth with minimal loss is measured in the 10s of terabytes (TB).

Recently, the first Australian space-based edge computer, Space Edge One (SE-1), was commissioned and put into orbit. Such efforts showcase the growing interest in space-edge computing. Engineers and researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the companies Qualcomm and Ubotica are also developing a set of AI algorithms that could help future space missions process raw data more efficiently.

The space data center evolution has a long way to go before being actualized. A thorough preparation in both investment and structural design must take place to ensure that these specialized processing and storage utilities work seamlessly in the sky and in harmony with facilities back on earth.

Given all these factors and the ongoing determination, it's a safe bet that space-based computing will continue to enable gains in artificial intelligence, data analytics, cloud networking and advanced satellite communications within a software-defined satellite architecture. And space data centers will likely soon join their ranks.

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