Data centers in space to improve its ecological balance, really?

launching DNAwe came across a captivating article: relocating data centers in space would be a considered solution to limit their environmental impact.

Assuming that these data centers – more and more numerous – consume 10% of the world’s energy and generate 4% of greenhouse gases according to the Faculty of Technology at the University of Quebec, we learn that the European Union is considering “extraterrestrial processing and storage facilities through a project called ASCEND (Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty)”.

Broadband connection and the conquest of space

Installing data centers in orbit and supplying them with electricity produced by solar power plants “several hundred megawatts”we could a priori considerably reduce the ecological impact of these infrastructures. After all, SpaceX’s low-orbit satellites already provide high-speed internet for Starlink subscribers. The rapid evolution of network technologies therefore makes it possible to consider this scenario concretely.

Within the scope of the ASCEND project, with the help of Thales Alenia Space, we are therefore working on the process of rocket launching the parts necessary for the automatic assembly of these data centers by robots. Two prerequisites are presented: the viability of the project, from its implementation to its operation and maintenance, and proof of its ecological interest, whose total environmental cost must be lower than that of operating data centers on Earth.

Huge challenges ahead

And it is here that we have enormous doubts, not to say that we consider this project to be an inappropriate technological leap. According to the project initiators, installing a data center in a much cooler environment would drastically reduce your energy bill. In fact, cooling represents up to 50% of the electrical consumption of these infrastructures, with energy still largely produced by fossil sources on a global scale. However, if it drops to -157°C outside the International Space Station at an altitude of 408 km, this temperature can rise to 121°C under the effect of the sun’s rays. The temperature range of around 280°C would definitely pose quite a challenge, as computer hardware is not designed to operate in such extreme temperatures.

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This also responds to the problem of artificial land, with data centers taking up too much space. But what enormous resources needed to achieve this. It would be necessary to take into account the ecological impact associated with the design, manufacture and maintenance of all the necessary equipment, the incessant interventions of robots piloted from Earth, without forgetting the CO2 cost of launches to place the racks in storage orbit than the panels of these hypothetical orbital solar farms.

Rocket launch with strong environmental impact

Because yes, rocket launches have an excessive carbon footprint, at least those whose engines don’t run on the hydrogen/oxygen duo. So we are talking about 200 to 300 t of CO2 equivalent for the single fuel consumption of a medium launcher at take-off. A range that, of course, does not include the environmental cost of manufacturing this equipment, which is even higher. Likewise, the emission of gases has other harmful effects, such as its impact on the ozone layer. Fortunately, there is on average only one rocket launch every three days in the world. We are a long way from 100,000 planes taking off a day, but that’s no reason not to worry about it.

So many parameters that leave us highly skeptical and very curious about the demonstration mission that should take place in 2026. European authorities even seem to believe that space technologies will be accelerators of the decarbonization of human activities. This program is even mentioned among the initiatives that should make it possible to respect the Green New Deal, this commitment according to which the EU will be carbon neutral by 2050. Fortunately, other more concrete measures will also be called into question.

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