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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The EU Wants to Send Data Centers Into Space

  • The rise of AI and energy-intensive technologies is creating a challenge for the global green transition.
  • The EU-funded ASCEND study is exploring the potential of space data centers powered by solar energy.
  • Launching data centers into space could reduce the energy burden on Earth but faces challenges like launch costs and rocket fuel requirements.

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other energy-intensive technologies are sending the global energy demand sky-high. With an increasing number of tech companies introducing AI software and several industries incorporating these technologies into their everyday activities, the global energy demand is growing, with no sign of slowing any time soon. Meanwhile, governments worldwide are pushing for a shift away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable alternatives, encouraging people and companies to reduce their energy demand and decarbonize. The rising demand for energy to fuel technologies such as AI is at odds with the global green transition, meaning that researchers are now looking for alternative ways to power these technologies sustainably. 

With AI growing in popularity and tech companies working rapidly to improve it, the AI market is expected to reach almost $2 trillion by 2030. This means that the global market for modular data centers is expected to grow to $81.2 billion by 2030, from $25.8 billion at present. The total global electricity consumption from data centers is expected to climb as high as 1,000 terawatt-hours by 2026, equivalent to the electricity demand of Japan. This is largely because AI data centers require around three times more energy than conventional data centres. 

Tech companies have been searching for ways to power their operations sustainably, investing heavily in green energy to power data centers. For example, in 2023, Microsoft announced it would be investing in nuclear power to fuel its AI ambitions. However, energy experts worry that the green energy being used to power data centers may decrease the renewable energy available for consumers and other industries, forcing us to rely on energy from fossil fuels for much longer. 

This has led governments and private companies to invest in research and development into alternative energy projects. The EU is currently funding the $2.1 million ASCEND study, assessing the potential of sending data centers into space to reduce the energy burden. The 16-month Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty study evaluated the viability of launching data centers into orbit. The project is managed by Thales Alenia Space for the European Commission. Damien Dumestier, the project manager, explained, “The idea [is] to take off part of the energy demand for data centers and to send them in space in order to benefit from infinite energy, which is solar energy.” 

The project assessed the potential for launching data centers into space at an obit altitude of 1,400km, which is around three times higher than that of the International Space Station. ASCENT aims to send 13 space data centers building blocks up, with a capacity of 10 MW, by 2036. Each building block would measure around 6,300 square meters and would have the capacity for its own data center service. To reduce the burden on the energy sector, ASCENT ultimately aims to launch 1,300 building blocks by the mid-century, to achieve 1 GW. 

The study assessed the anticipated environmental impact of using this method to power data centers. Researchers found that reducing carbon emissions would require the development of a new type of launcher that produces around 10 times less emissions than current options. There are 12 companies participating in the study and ArianeGroup is currently developing new launcher technologies to make this possible, aiming to introduce the first eco-launcher by 2035. 

While space data centers would gain access to greater levels of solar power, without having to deal with weather interruptions, there are concerns about the quantity of rocket fuel required to keep the structure in orbit. A 1 MW data center could require around 280,000kg of rocket fuel a year to keep it in a low orbit, which would cost around $140 million in 2030. Critics believe that due to the high costs involved, it is unlikely that this solution would be used on a wide scale, being deployed only to specific key services, such as military/surveillance, broadcasting, and telecommunications. 

Nonetheless, the feasibility study did show promise. Christophe Valorge, the Chief Technology Officer at Thales Alenia Space, stated, “The results of the ASCEND study confirm that deploying data centers in space could transform the European digital landscape, offering a more eco-friendly and sovereign solution for hosting and processing data. We’re proud to be contributing to an initiative supporting Europe’s net-zero objectives and strengthening its technological sovereignty.” 

Whether or not we see the commercial rollout of space data centers this century, the progress being seen in the space sector shows that greater research and development into alternative energy operations could play a huge role in the green transition. While the EU is looking to the sky for answers, other companies, such as Microsoft, are exploring the potential for subsea data centers, showing it is only a matter of time until we begin harvesting power from little-explored locations.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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