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Worried about your datacenter carbon footprint? Why not put it in orbit?

No atmosphere to pollute, but who's going to go up and change that failed drive?

The European Commission is to carry out a feasibility study on putting datacenters into orbit as part of its wide-ranging Horizon Europe research program, and has now announced companies taking part in the project.

Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between European aerospace and defence companies Thales and Leonardo, announced that it has been selected by the European Commission to lead the ASCEND feasibility study, which stands for Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty.

The impetus behind this project is apparently environmental, according to Thales Alenia Space. The ever-expanding market for IT services means that datacenters in Europe and across the globe are growing at a rapid pace, which in turn has an impact on energy consumption and can harm the environment.

It isn't perhaps an obvious solution, but Thales Alenia Space will lead a consortium of companies examining whether datacenters can be put into orbit, powered by solar energy and use optical communications to provide a data link with facilities on the ground.

The company said the project could help meet Europe's Green Deal goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and would also be an "unprecedented development in the European space and digital ecosystem."

According to Thales Alenia Space, the energy to power such orbital datacenters could come from solar power plants capable of generating several hundred megawatts, while the link with the ground would use high-bandwidth internet connections based on optical communications, "for which Europe has mastered the underlying technologies."

The first objective of the study will be to assess if the CO2 emissions from the building and launching of the space infrastructure would be significantly lower than the emissions generated by simply building more ground-based datacenters.

A second objective will be to prove that it is possible to develop the required launch solution – ie, that it is actually feasible to stick a datacenter on a rocket and put it into orbit in a working state – and to ensure the operability of the space-borne datacenters.

According to Thales Alenia Space, the latter could be accomplished using robotic assistance technologies currently being developed in Europe, such as the EROSS IOD demonstrator.

EROSS IOD (European Robotic Orbital Support Services In Orbit Demonstrator) is a project to develop technology for in-orbit servicing of satellites in order to extend their usable life, and is also led by Thales Alenia Space.

The idea may sound wacky, but at least the European Commission is stumping up the cash to investigate how achievable it is. It seems likely that an orbital datacenter would be constrained by what fits atop the largest launch vehicle, and thus would be much smaller and have far less capacity than ground-based datacenters, unless they can perhaps be linked together in orbit.

Other concerns would be that it would be very difficult to send out an engineer to fix a failed storage array, and the lifecycle of servers means that the infrastructure would be out of date after about five years or so.

ASCEND was detailed in a factsheet published in October by the European Commission and stems from the 2021 Horizon Europe calls for space-based proposals. It states that ASCEND will receive a grant of over €2 million ($2.08 million).

The consortium includes numerous companies with relevant areas of expertise, including the environment (Carbone 4, VITO), cloud computing (Orange, CloudFerro, HPE Belgium), launch vehicles (ArianeGroup) and orbital systems (German aerospace center (DLR), Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space). ®

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