Thales Alenia Space leading feasibility study for data centres in space

Energy-intensive data centres could be put into orbit by 2030-35 following a feasibility study being carried out by a consortium led by Thales Alenia Space.

Thales Alenia Space

The consortium is working on ASCEND (Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty) as part of the Horizon Europe research program.

Yves Durand, director of technologies and ASCEND project leader, explained that the objective of the study is ‘neutralise’ the exponential increase of energy demand associated with data centres.

To achieve this the consortium will explore the installation of in orbit data centres powered by solar power plants generating several hundred megawatts. The only link with the ground would be high-throughput Internet connections based on optical communications.

The study will first look at the carbon emissions from the production and launch of these space infrastructures, assessing whether they would be significantly lower than emissions generated by ground-based data centres.

“Data centres use so much energy that their carbon footprint is projected to surpass the aviation footprint in a few years,” Durand told The Engineer by email. “Carbon free energy - renewable or nuclear - will be limited in Europe, to the point that very strong digital usage limitations are envisioned to comply with the Paris Agreement.”

The second objective will be to prove that it is possible to develop the required launch solution. According to Durand, this will be a heavy lift, high rate, reusable launch vehicle - of about the capacity of SpaceX’s StarShip - with a low environmental impact.

“The payloads are then put into a LEO storage orbit, where servicer vehicles will bring them into the proper orbit for assembly in space, and bring back modules to be recycled or maintained,” he said.

ASCEND expects to demonstrate the extent to which space-based data centres would limit the energy and environmental impact of their ground-based counterparts, which would unlock major investments within the scope of Europe’s Green Deal, possibly justifying the development of a more climate-friendly, reusable heavy launch vehicle.

“Space data centres offer also some benefits of security, as they will be obviously difficult to access physically, and will be more controlled in terms of data connections,” said Durand. “But there are also benefits of storing in space, data that is produced in space: for example for Copernicus data, as storage and processing directly in space will allow for more real time reactions for the protection of the environment or, for example, forest fire detection.”

For the ASCEND study, Thales Alenia Space’s consortium partners bring expertise spanning the environment (Carbone 4, VITO), cloud computing (Orange, CloudFerro, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Belgium), launch vehicles (ArianeGroup) and orbital systems (German aerospace centre DLR, Airbus Defence and Space).