Data centres in space could be one solution to AI’s big energy problem

As AI boosts demand for more data storage, Europe is considering sending data centres into space — and the plan is not as outlandish as it may first appear.  

A 16-month, 2 million study has concluded that space-based data centres are technically, economically, and environmentally feasible. 

Thales Alenia Space and Leonardo coordinated the ASCEND study, which was funded by the EU. The research also tapped expertise from the likes of Airbus, ArianeGroup, and the German Space Agency. 

“Deploying data centres in space could transform the European digital landscape, offering a more eco-friendly and sovereign solution for hosting and processing data,” said Christophe Valorge, chief technical officer at Thales Alenia Space.  

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The ASCEND team aims to deploy 13 space data centre “building blocks” with a total capacity of 10MW in 2036. The overall goal is to achieve 1GW of storage by 2050, project manager Damien Dumestier told CNBC. 

The space-based data centres would orbit Earth at an altitude of around 1,400km, three times higher than the International Space Station (ISS).

The hidden environmental costs of AI

In May, Google added a new feature to its search engine that produces AI-generated summaries to queries. Other than regularly spewing out factually incorrect information, AI Overviews comes with a hidden cost: it uses up to 10 times more energy than a traditional Google search.

Digitisation, and more specifically the rise of AI, is skyrocketing demand for data storage. The electricity demand for data centres is now outpacing electricity supply in some parts of the world. Many of these facilities are still powered by fossil fuels.  

The EU launched ASCEND to compare the environmental impacts of space-based and Earth-based data centres, as it looks to catch up with the US and China in data storage capacity. 

Unlike their land-cased counterparts, data centres in space could be powered by 24/7 solar energy. They also wouldn’t require water for cooling — because space is really, really cold.  

However, the study also found that for space-based data centres to make sense environmentally, a new type of launcher that produces 10 times less emissions would need to be developed. The data centres would also have to use rocket fuel to stay in orbit, which would most definitely cut into its green credentials. 

ArianeGroup is working on a eco-launcher that could take care of the launch emissions. However, scientists are still a long way off from producing a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to rocket fuel.

Nevertheless, given the energy and land constraints back on Earth, setting up data centres in space may be a moonshot worth taking.

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