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Data centers move into space to reduce energy consumption and pollution | science


Recreate a data center in Earth orbit.
Recreate a data center in Earth orbit.Thales Alenia Space

For big problems, extraordinary solutions. This is what the European Commission thought in the face of the exponential increase in computerisation; its energy spending, which is expected to reach 10% of global consumption; And the pollution it generates, “4% of the greenhouse gases generated by human activity, is slightly higher than that of the global aviation industry,” according to the University of Quebec’s Graduate School of Technology (Canada). The European Union has selected Thales Alenia Space (67% Thales and 33% Leonardo) to study the feasibility of the ASCEND (European Space Cloud for Zero Emissions Networks and Data Sovereignty) programme. The goal, included in the Horizon Europe research program, is to install data centers in orbit.

“Digital infrastructures as a whole account for a significant portion of energy consumption around the world, with a significant carbon footprint,” says Sami Zoghlamy, Vice President, Nutanix. According to their data, “in Europe, the Middle East and Africa alone, data centers consume more than 90 TWh annually, with an emissions level equivalent to that generated by about 5.9 million cars (27 million tons of CO2)”.

Some companies are addressing this problem by turning to carbon-neutral energy sources. This is the case of Google Cloud, which will use 149 megawatts of electricity of solar origin from a new photovoltaic park located in Toro (Zamora). With this resource, she hopes that within three years the Madrid region and offices in Spain will be at 90% capacity with this type of sourcing, as the regions of Finland, Iowa, Montreal, Oregon, and Toronto already do. Amazon has 13,300 solar panels with a generating capacity of 5.26 megawatts at its logistics center in Seville, the company’s largest installation in Europe.

But not all data companies have this ability and the industry is growing and demanding more and more. Faced with this reality, the goal of the ASCEND project is to demonstrate the future capacity of data centers in orbit so that the carbon footprint of digitization is significantly reduced by using solar energy outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

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Yves Durand is Director of Technologies at Thales Alenia Space, the consortium responsible for studying the feasibility of these space data centers in the next year and a half with the aim of installing them in the first half of the next decade. Initiatives like Google are not enough, Durand says: “Most data centers in Europe now use high-carbon sources. These infrastructures are big energy consumers: between 2% and 3% worldwide now and growing twice each year. It will reach up to 10% of the global total. We cannot produce so much carbon-free energy in the face of enormous demands, to which will be added, for example, electric cars or hydrogen production, and we cannot cover our entire surface area with solar panels.

His calculations predict that in 2050 it will not be possible to cover all needs at the current rate of growth of demand, so moving data centers into space, according to him, “seems like a good alternative to the huge energy and carbon footprint”.

The first big challenge is building such a large facility in space. “This is why the main specialists in space infrastructure are united into a large federation,” he explains. This group consists of Carbone 4, VITO, Orange, CloudFerro, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, ArianeGroup, DLR, Airbus Defense and Space, and Thales Alenia Space.

“We have collected the best of each category,” confirms Doran, who explains that among the work that will be carried out is the optimization of the spatial architecture to find the best model at a reasonable cost. This, according to the researcher, would be “the equivalent of building a nuclear power plant.” The Spanish Nuclear Association estimates that between 4,000 and 5,000 million euros are needed for these facilities.

The chief technology officer of Thales Alenia Space believes that it is possible, as the existence of the International Space Station demonstrates, and that its construction will be “without astronauts, completely automated.” “In fact, the project involves a special assembly with robots,” he adds. The basis is a modular hub design with easy-to-carry electronic packages in a reusable and collapsible shuttle. Communications, unlike terrestrial facilities, will not rely on fiber, but will use optical technology.

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Energy saving

And only by saving energy in cooling, and taking advantage of the lower temperatures in space, will it be possible to avoid massive consumption. A large portion of a data center’s energy use goes to cooling equipment. In some facilities, this element is more than 50%. In Earth’s orbits, the temperature can reach -180 degrees Celsius in our planet’s shadow.

Ascend’s initial goal is to show that this project makes sense, especially if it wants to achieve emissions neutrality before 2050. But the implications go further than that. These orbital computing centers are an essential tool in the upcoming space exploration, with the potential to install lunar bases or conquer Mars.

With these infrastructures, data no longer has to be collected in space and returned, stored and analyzed on the ground. Doran adds, “And also something very important, we can respond much faster if we have the processing capacity in space.” Communication between Mars and Earth takes 40 minutes to go back and forth, so the transmission of important information required another model.

Another major challenge is radiation, which affects both the physical components of the system and the computation. Durand admits it’s a major issue, but explains that there’s already a lot of experience with telecommunications satellite towers.

Quantitative statistics

Applications that can benefit from these new cores, such as computing with neural networks or financial centers, which require significant processing power, have already been identified. Also quantum computing, which requires very low temperatures and no vibrations, something that can be achieved in space.

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These centers will be secure, although the possibility of a cyberattack is always possible because technologies are advancing in both proper uses and bogus uses. “We have to imagine protections that are different from those used on the ground,” Doran explains.

There are already data centers in space, albeit at very different proportions than the European Commission envisioned. The International Space Station is home to HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC-2), the first AI-enabled computing system in space that has already completed 24 research experiments.

The European Space Agency also launched PhiSat-1, the first satellite with onboard AI processing using Intel’s Movidius Myriad 2 chip.

other savings

And the role of data centers is not limited to helping reduce carbon emissions. Any use of information obtained from space can help global sustainability. according to him Sustainable Business Studio From Globant to Inmarsat, a global mobile satellite communications company, the world can achieve decarbonization 10 years faster if industries make the most of existing and emerging space technologies. In this sense, according to Globant, the full adoption of the available systems would make it possible to achieve a reduction of 11.5% of global emissions in 2030, in addition to the current savings of 2.5%, and 9% of the incorporation of new uses.

For Elena Moretini, lead scientist for the report, “From a technological and scientific point of view, the potential reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from satellite technologies is enormous.” He adds, “Certainly, it is not a lack of innovation that is preventing further sustainability success, but a lack of investment that is getting in the way.”

According to the report, the data provided by the satellites will allow for significant improvement of transportation routes, for both passengers and freight, and increase efficiency in detecting methane emissions.

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