Europe wants to deploy data centers into space, study says

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Europe Launches Ambitious Plan for Space-Based Data Centers to Tame the "Data Tsunami"

The insatiable appetite for data storage, fueled by the rapid rise of artificial intelligence and digitalization, is pushing Europe to consider a radical solution: building data centers in space. With energy-hungry facilities on Earth straining under the growing demand, the European Commission is exploring the feasibility of launching data centers into orbit, potentially offering a more sustainable and efficient alternative.

Key Takeaways:

  • Space-based data centers are being explored as a solution to the energy demands of the expanding digital sector, offering a potentially more sustainable and efficient alternative to Earth-bound facilities.
  • The ASCEND study, coordinated by Thales Alenia Space, suggests the technical, economic, and environmental feasibility of space-based data centers, with an estimated launch date of 2036.
  • The project aims to address Europe’s push for carbon neutrality by 2050 and secure its data sovereignty in an increasingly competitive AI landscape.
  • The project acknowledges the significant challenges like developing eco-friendly reusable launchers and addressing security concerns posed by the ever-increasing politicization of space.
  • While space data centers show promise for specific applications, experts suggest they are not a complete replacement for traditional earth-based data centers.

A "Data Tsunami" Demands Innovative Solutions

Data centers, the backbone of our digital world, are facing a crippling demand surge. The global electricity consumption of data centers could reach a staggering 1,000 terrawatt-hours in 2026, equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of Japan. This "data tsunami," as Merima Dzanic, head of strategy and operations at the Danish Data Center Industry Association, describes it, is especially amplified by the energy demands of AI data centers, which require three times more power than traditional facilities.

The ASCEND study, a 16-month long initiative funded by the European Commission, proposes a bold solution: launching data centers into space. Damien Dumestier, manager of the project, explains the concept: "The idea [is] to take off part of the energy demand for data centers and to send them in space in order to benefit from infinite energy, which is solar energy."

Orbiting Data Centers: A Feasibility Study

The study envisions a network of space-based data centers orbiting at an altitude of 1,400 kilometers, around three times higher than the International Space Station. The initial deployment, slated for 2036, involves 13 building blocks with a total capacity of 10 megawatts, laying the groundwork for cloud service commercialization. Each building block, covering 6,300 square meters, comprises its own data center service and is launched separately. The ultimate goal is to deploy 1,300 building blocks by 2050, achieving a total capacity of 1 gigawatt.

Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Space Development

One of the key challenges identified by the ASCEND study is the need for a new generation of launchers that significantly reduce emissions. ArianeGroup, a participant in the study, is actively developing a more eco-friendly and reusable launcher with a target launch date of 2035.

However, even with these advancements, some experts believe that space-based data centers are not a panacea for sustainable energy consumption. "It’s just one part of the puzzle," says Dzanic. Michael Winterson, managing director of the European Data Centre Association, highlights the significant fuel requirements to maintain a space-based data center in orbit. He estimates that a small 1 megawatt center in low earth orbit would consume around 280,000 kilograms of rocket fuel per year, translating to a cost of approximately $140 million in 2030.

Furthermore, Dzanic raises concerns about potential security risks: "Space is being increasingly politicised and weaponized amongst the different countries. So obviously, there is a security implication on what type of data you send out there."

A Global Race for AI Supremacy: Europe’s Ambitious Gamble

The ASCEND project represents Europe’s bid to secure its position in the global AI landscape, where it currently trails behind the US and China. The ambitious effort demonstrates Europe’s commitment to developing innovative and sustainable solutions for the escalating demands of the digital age.

Dumestier expresses the project’s broader significance: "We want to ensure data sovereignty for Europe, but this kind of project can benefit other countries. We are pushing a lot because we can tell that it is a promising project. It could be a flagship for the Europe space development."

The Future of Data Centers: Earthbound or Orbital?

The nascent idea of space-based data centers is a testament to the ingenuity and determination required to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving digital world. While the prospect of orbiting data centers might seem futuristic, the project’s potential to address critical issues like energy consumption and data security deserves careful consideration. The ASCEND study is merely the first step in this ambitious endeavor. The next phase will focus on consolidating data, further refining technical details, and developing a heavy lift launcher. The future success of space-based data centers hinges on overcoming the complex technical and economic hurdles and tackling the ever-present concerns about security and environmental impact.

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Brian Adams
Brian Adams
Brian Adams is a technology writer with a passion for exploring new innovations and trends. His articles cover a wide range of tech topics, making complex concepts accessible to a broad audience. Brian's engaging writing style and thorough research make his pieces a must-read for tech enthusiasts.