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Data centres in outer space could happen sooner than you think

FYI, this story is more than a year old

We live in an infinitely interesting time where one of the biggest commodities is data, new technologies are emerging every day, and people are launching cars into outer space.

While on the topic of space, I recently spoke with Park Place Technologies VP of innovation Paul Mercina, who has some very interesting forecasts for the data centers of the future.

Mercina believes that we are currently on two trajectories that will reach a meeting point that could lead to space-based data centers.

“Technology has been miniaturising for decades. Sending up an iPhone today would put a more powerful computer in space than at any time during the Apollo era! Even as we reach the limits of chip miniaturisation, photonic chips and quantum computing seems poised to take over in maximising the capabilities that can be packed into ever-smaller form factors—ones perfect to send into space,” says Mercina.

“The other trajectory, of course, is cost. SpaceX is slashing the cost of space launches with reusable rockets and other innovations, such as interoperable parts, simplified rocket design, and operational efficiency. At US$65 million, sending up equipment now costs less than $2,500 per pound to orbit. The current price point isn't low enough for Google to send up its server farms, but the economics are no doubt improving.

You may be thinking so yes it could be financially viable, but what would be the benefits? Mercina says there are many.

“It's estimated that data centers consume up to 10% of the world's energy. This makes the plentiful solar power available in space-based facilities highly attractive,” says Mercina.

“Space is cool, physically. Colder temperatures hold the promise of reducing failure rates in IT equipment while enabling higher processing speeds before overheating. Microsoft's under-sea data center experiments are already exploring the advantages of computing where it's always cold.

Mercina says while the lack of oxygen as well as other factors makes space a harsh environment for humans, it can actually be quite friendly for computers.

“There aren't storms or weather extremes to worry about. Zero-G is great for spinning disk drives. And the orbiting data centers would experience almost no humidity, which would cut down on corrosion,” says Mercina.

“Such data centers would be entirely sealed, likely filled with nitrogen. A sealed data center means no dust and, thus, no air filters. No engineering visits mean a more efficient layout without need for physical access points. It also means no human error.

So how long until this idea of data centers in space is physically possible? Mercina says the proposition isn't as futuristic as it sounds – the first commercial computers were sent up last year.

“It's important to see this step in context. Historically, space missions were equipped with IT gear that had been hardened—think military specs on steroids—to withstand take-off, cosmic radiation, and a zero-gravity environment,” says Mercina.

“This equipment is much more expensive than standard servers here on Earth. Developing hardened equipment also takes time, meaning the International Space Station command and control operates on technology from the late 1980s, and even the laptops for astronauts are 2007-era.

Mercina says the hope is that a cheaper, software-based approach to hardening could allow use of current, off-the-shelf equipment.

“The concept being tested is to throttle speed in case of solar flare or radiation hazard. HPE sent two water-cooled servers directly from the factory to the space station to test the idea,” Mercina says.

“Results aren't in yet, but with such a large company seeing the potential for profit in commercial space travel, signs for further investment and progress are encouraging.

Interesting times indeed.

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