If you haven’t been following the New Space Age closely, the next few decades may knock your socks off. Anticipated is a permanent presence on the moon, a commercial space station, private citizens traveling to orbit, space-based medical treatments, deep space travel, and a flurry of activity involving mining, producing, and exploiting space resources.
No one can be certain of the future, but if only a fraction of these projects come to pass, they will rely on large amounts of data. Data that will be stored, accessed, and processed in space. And as data finds a home in space, we may see more of Earth’s data moving into orbit, too.
This two-part series explores the rise of space data centers and those building future space data infrastructure, starting on the moon.
A data center on the moon
Lonestar Data Holdings Inc. is a startup looking to build the first data center on the moon. The company’s CEO, Christopher Stott, knows most people will think he’s a luna-tic, but his space-entrepreneur credentials are undeniable.
Stott has spent his career working in the satellite and telecommunications industries. He was the CEO of the world’s largest commercial provider of satellite spectrum, and has worked for Lockheed Martin Space Operations, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing. He serves on the faculty and advisory board of the International Space University and is the founding director of the International Institute of Space Commerce. Even his wife is a retired NASA astronaut who logged more than 100 days in orbit.
Stott has few illusions about space. So, what prompted a successful CEO to embark on rocketing boxes of storage to the moon? Climate change.
Stott’s customers came to him with a unique request: They wanted to safeguard data from the increasing unpredictability on Earth — wildfires, floods, heatwaves, wars, and cyber-attacks. “Data is what enables our technological civilization,” said Stott. “Without it, we go back to being in the 18th century, and that’s not a good thing for anyone.”
Tasked with building the ultimate disaster recovery, Stott and his team began their hunt. “We looked at the deep ocean. We looked at deserts and jungles. We looked on top of the mountain, below the mountain, low Earth orbit, and of course, geostationary orbit.”
Then NASA announced the Artemis program’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), and the moon was suddenly within reach.
Earth’s natural satellite
The moon isn’t only Earth’s natural satellite. For Stott, it’s also a stable platform. “The moon has no weather, no climate change, no atmosphere, and it has a perfect view of Earth rotating underneath it,” he said.
Tidally locked in orbit, the moon’s near side always faces our planet, graciously making line-of-sight communication possible. It also has lava tubes large enough to host a small city. Underground, equipment is protected from radiation, micro-meteorites, and can enjoy a permanent 63º F (17º C), which also happens to be the perfect server room “sweater weather.”
Stott isn’t the only person eyeing the lunar surface. The moon is rapidly becoming a strategic asset for nations and companies looking to tap into its resources for human colonization and deep space missions. It’s going to get crowded (and potentially contentious), and NASA’s CLPS missions are part of the accelerated activity of bringing payloads to the lunar surface. “Counter-intuitively, it’s cheaper for us to test this on the moon than it is to launch our own satellite in low Earth orbit,” said Stott.
Stott admits there are still challenges to overcome, particularly for solar and communication equipment to survive the two-week lunar night. But he has no doubt the space industry will soon solve this, too. “All of this wasn’t possible two years ago, but it’s possible today,” he said. “It’s science fiction until it isn’t.”
This spring, Lonestar will send a proof of concept to the moon. By the end of the year, the company plans to launch its first device. Commencing with a humble eight terabytes, advanced computing, and sensors is what Stott calls an epoch-changing moment: “This will be the first time that we, in a conscious manner, store data off our planet to back ourselves up,” he said.
Stott is already accepting customers for the next mission, which will hold five petabytes. After that, he plans to scale the following missions to 50 petabytes, then 100, and ultimately, when vehicles capable of heavier payloads become available, exabyte-level facilities.
“For a little over 60 years, we, the satellite communications industry, have been quietly getting things done, putting things in space,” he said. “This is a natural next step and one that is pivotal for humanity and our planet.”
Stott is not alone. Organizations are now researching the idea of moving data centers to space to ease data centers’ demands on our planet’s resources. Others say it’s only a matter of time before the cost equation flips, and maintaining data hubs beyond the stratosphere will be more affordable than the cost of electricity and real estate on Earth. While solar-powered, orbiting computing farms may sound outlandish now, maybe Stott is right, and it’s only science fiction until it isn’t.
Meanwhile, data from low Earth orbit is already having a more significant role in our life on Earth. With thousands more satellites expected to launch in the next decade, there are growing environmental and regulatory concerns alongside a world of opportunities. The second part of this series explores the rise of data infrastructure in low Earth orbit and a future of space data services.