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Space data centers could be economically viable, study

A European initiative that studies the feasibility of building data centers in space has found that the project could be economically viable while reducing the carbon footprint of the infrastructure that is powering the artificial-intelligence boom.

Space company Thales Alenia Space, the coordinator of the European project, said Thursday that a feasibility study confirmed deploying data centers into space could offer a more sustainable solution for hosting and processing data. The project could also generate a return on investment of several billion euros between now and 2050, the company said.

Data centers provide the computing power that AI models need to run, but also consume hefty amounts of energy and water. The rise of ChatGPT and similar AI applications kicked off a race among technology companies to build more data centers, raising concerns about the potential environmental impact.

The study—dubbed Ascend, short for Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emission and Data sovereignty—was funded by the European Union and sought to compare the environmental impacts of space-based and Earth-based data centers, the company said. Moving forward, the company plans to consolidate and optimize its results.

Space data centers would be powered by solar energy outside the Earth’s atmosphere, aiming to contribute to the European Union’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, the project coordinator said.

“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,” Thales Alenia Chief Technical Officer Christophe Valorge said.

Data centers and data-transmission networks accounted for about 0.9% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, or 0.6% of total emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Thales Alenia, a joint venture between aerospace-and-defense companies Thales of France and Leonardo of Italy, collaborated with partners such as aerospace company Airbus, server and cloud-software company Hewlett Packard Enterprise and telecommunications group Orange in the study. It found that space data centers would require the development of a launcher 10 times less emissive over its entire lifecycle to significantly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions generated by the processing and storage of digital data.

Space data centers wouldn’t require water to cool them, the company said. Livemint

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