Environmental issues are becoming more deeply ingrained in society, whether it’s due to climate activists choosing certain works of art to pour soup at or people attending (or conspicuously missing out on) the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The European Commission (EC) is investigating radical ideas for minimising the climatic impact of data centres and other HPC (High-Performance Computing) deployments, as reported by The Register. Concepts include placing them entirely in the vacuum of space, far from the Earth’s atmosphere.
ASCEND, which stands for Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty, is a feasibility study led by the EC and supported by a €2 million budget. It is a component of the EU’s “Horizon Europe” initiative. Additionally, it collaborates with a number of companies in the environmental, cloud computing, and space technology sectors. Thales Alenia Space, a partnership between the European aerospace and defence firms Thales and Leonardo, is leading this effort. Performance, longevity, or energy efficiency are not the main drivers behind the feasibility study, according to Thales Alenia Space. Instead, those components are now part of a larger environmental strategy to address operating emissions from functioning data centres.
It is simple to understand how space-based data centres might benefit the environment. The emissions related to their operation would no longer have an effect on our planet because they would be outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Because the majority of components would still need to be produced on our “pale blue dot” of a planet, it would be impossible to lower this value to zero (without carbon compensation programmes tied to new data centres).
The performance requirements for the most recent HPC hardware from any of the well-known hardware vendors have led to an ever-growing energetic (and environmental) footprint, despite the fact that companies continue to increase the power efficiency of their hardware products generation after generation. That is the specific problem that ASCEND seeks to solve.
Therefore, the plan would be to construct data centres that could be totally powered by solar panels because they already operate at higher efficiency outside of our atmosphere. They were capable of producing “hundreds of megawatts” of power.
The optical cables that would connect these orbiting data centres to Earth would carry the bulk of the information transmission from orbit. Thales Alenia Space asserts that Europe has already mastered the underlying technologies necessary to make a deployment scenario like this practical.
Of course, as we begin to establish data centres in space, the issue of atmospheric emissions doesn’t go away entirely. The construction of the data centres and the deployment of spacecraft that could transport the data centre payload would increase the carbon footprint of the data centres, thereby negating any environmental benefits of operating them in space. Naturally, this also applies to advancements in payload capacity made by the most recent (and upcoming) rocket technology: a single SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch could transport a lot larger payload than many Falcon rockets could ever hope to.
SlingShot, is a private business that NASA has contracted with for launch system trials. SlingShot replaces fossil fuel-intensive rockets with a payload attached to one end of a massive rotating arm propelled by electric motors. Datacenter-borne payloads might be launched into orbit at speeds of up to 8,000 km/h by spinning the arm at 450 revolutions per minute. That’s undoubtedly one method of reducing carbon emissions.
The second task for ASCEND is to determine whether data centre payloads can be used after being launched into space using a rocket or another novel propulsion method. This is important because anything that leaves our atmosphere is subject to tremendous pressures that could cause damage to all but the most robust hardware installations. Even if they are able to be used, there are still a number of issues to be resolved, including maintenance, upkeep, data centre obsolescence, and the feasibility of decommissioning these space-faring installations. There is already enough “space debris” in the Earth’s orbit; we don’t need to add any more abandoned data centres to the list.
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