Environmental concerns have become increasingly entrenched in the collective consciousness – whether through climate activists’ decisions on what pieces of art deserve to have soup thrown at them or through the participation (and notable absences) from the United Nations Climate Change Conference. In the meantime, and as spotted by The Register (opens in new tab), the European Commission (EC) is exploring radical ideas for reducing the climate impact of data centers and other HPC (High-Performance Computing) deployments. Concepts include completely installing them outside the Earth’s atmosphere, within the deep black of space.
The EC-led feasibility study ASCEND (short for Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty) is part of the EU’s “Horizon Europe” initiative (opens in new tab) and is bolstered by a €2 million budget. It also counts on several partners from the environmental, cloud computing, and space technology fields spearheaded by Thales Alenia Space (opens in new tab), a joint venture between European aerospace and defense companies Thales and Leonardo. According to Thales Alenia Space, the primary motivator for the feasibility study doesn’t pertain to performance, longevity, or energy efficiency. Instead, those elements have been wrapped within the bigger environmental picture of dealing with running emissions from operational data centers.
It’s easy to see how space-borne data centers could be a boon for the environment. Due to them being outside Earth’s atmosphere, emissions relating to their operation would no longer have an impact on our planet. It’d be impossible to reduce this value to zero (outside carbon compensation programs linked to new data centers) because most components would still have to be manufactured within our “pale blue dot” of a planet. But even as companies increase their hardware products’ power efficiency generation after generation, the increasing performance requirements for the latest HPC hardware from any of the prominent hardware vendors have led to an ever-growing energetic (and environmental) footprint. That is precisely what ASCEND aims to tackle.
The idea, then, would be to build data centers that solar panels could entirely power: they already achieve higher efficiencies outside our atmosphere. They could provide power in the “hundreds of megawatts” range. These orbiting data centers would connect to Earth using optical links, which would do the heavy lifting in transmitting information from orbit. According to Thales Alenia Space, Europe has already mastered the underlying technologies that could make a feasible deployment scenario such as this.
Of course, the concern with atmospheric emissions doesn’t disappear completely when we start putting data centers in space. CO2 emissions from the building and deploying spaceships that could carry the data center payload would add to the data centers’ overall carbon footprint, possibly neutering any environmental advantages from being operated in space. And, of course, this also plays out with improvements in payload capacity from the latest (and future) rocket technology: one SpaceX Falcon Heavy could carry a much more significant payload in one go than multiple Falcon launches could ever aspire to.
ASCEND’s first order of business, then, is to calculate whether or not it would make more sense to “yeet” data centers into space rather than build more of them on Earth’s surface (or even, perhaps, in the deep seas as Microsoft successfully explored through its project Natick (opens in new tab)).
But even if ASCEND finds out that rocket launches would turn the environmental concerns on their head, there’s always the option to… slingshot them? At least, that is the idea of SlingShot, a private company that’s been tapped by NASA for trials of its launch system (opens in new tab). SlingShot does away with fossil-fuel-heavy rockets and flings cargo out into space by attaching a payload onto one end of a giant spinning arm powered by electric motors. By making the spinning arm rotate at around 450 rotations per minute, datacenter-borne payloads could be shot into space at speeds reaching 8,000 Km/h. That’s certainly one way of controlling carbon emissions.
Whether via rocket or other exotic propulsion means, ASCEND’s second order of business is to understand whether data center payloads can be put to work after being carried by rocket and deployed into space – we have to remember that anything leaving our atmosphere faces immense pressures that could wreak havoc with anything but the most resilient hardware installations. And even if they can be put to work, there are many other concerns, such as maintenance, upkeep, the fast pace of obsolescence for data centers, and the ability to decommission these space-faring installations. We have enough “space junk” in Earth’s orbit without several decommissioned data centers being added to that tally.
All in all, this is still an exploratory study and one that’s likely to be revisited as technology progresses. Launch capability, cost, and efficiency have improved immensely since we first went “Ad Astra,” The same is true of computing in general. So we’d say it’s a question of time until ASCEND’s solution (or another party’s) fits the problem it’s trying to solve – if not today, then in one of our tomorrows.
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