Why you should care

Data centers consume the energy of 50 power plants and spew out more greenhouse gases than 140 countries. Now, space could save the day. 

When scientist and entrepreneur Ohad Harlev was looking for new ways to store data in 2015, he thought his best idea was out of reach. Instead of keeping hard drives in a large data center, he wanted to store data by moving it back and forth between servers at the speed of light. Four years later, he has turned that dream into reality — and gone a step further.

Harlev’s company, LyteLoop, has developed technology to store data in motion, but not just between servers on Earth. It is planning to use photonics — the science of generating and harnessing light that undergirds technologies critical for everything from smartphones to lasers — to store data in space, by sending it back and forth between satellites. The impact could extend to the health of the planet, and LyteLoop isn’t alone.

A growing number of startups are eyeing satellites as alternatives to traditional data centers on Earth. Los Angeles-based Cloud Constellation plans to launch an entire data center into space at the end of 2021, using a network of small satellites. Another startup, ConnectX, plans to launch satellites this year with the capacity to hold digital cryptocurrency wallets and keys. Singapore-based SpaceChain launched two nanosatellites capable of handling blockchain nodes in 2018, and earlier this year carried out its first quantum transaction — which relies on that technology — in outer space. And Asgardia, the so-called space nation of more than 100,000 people — they have their own constitution, coat of arms and a plan to establish a moon settlement by 2043 — in 2017 sent a hard drive containing the data of its “citizens” on a satellite into space.

Even if we moved 1 to 2 percent of all of the data … into space, I think we could make an impact.

Cliff Beek, Cloud Constellation

Key advantages these groups cite are cybersecurity concerns and the potential for the storage of exponentially larger volumes of data in space than is currently possible with data centers on Earth. But there’s another factor motivating many of these companies, including LyteLoop and Cloud Constellation: the prospect of battling global warming. Storing data in space uses up significantly less energy than the traditional data center and, therefore, emits drastically less carbon dioxide.

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A diagram from Cloud Constellation showing how its network of satellites would bounce data off one another.

Source Cloud Constellation

“It’s ecologically friendly,” says Cloud Constellation CEO Cliff Beek. In space, data doesn’t have to be cooled with large amounts of energy, Beek explains — space is cold already.

Consider this: Data centers on Earth, which store our information on the cloud, are currently among the largest consumers of energy, and significantly contribute to rising carbon emissions. In the U.S., all data centers make up 2 percent of national electricity consumption, according to a 2016 report by Berkeley Lab. By 2020, data centers are expected to consume 140 billion kilowatt-hours of energy, according to a report by the National Resources Defense Council. That’s equivalent to the annual output of 50 power plants, the report says, and will cost American businesses $13 billion annually in electricity bills while spewing out nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year — that’s more than the greenhouse gas emissions of 140 countries.

Instead, says Harlev, it’s already possible to store petabytes — a thousand trillion bytes — of data on satellites. “Storing data in motion simply relies on light,” he says. With attached solar panels, data can be transmitted between satellites without any carbon emissions. “We’re saving so much in energy costs and carbon emissions,” Harlev adds.

Then, there are other advantages to storing data in space. ConnectX, for instance, is focused on using satellites to ensure cybersecurity of transactions in the international commodities market.

“If [the U.S.] wants to buy $300 million worth of oil from Saudi Arabia, there are so many middlemen involved in that and so much risk,” says Lance Parker, the firm’s CEO and founder. “Instead, our satellite would hold a secure key, mitigating the risk.”

For cryptocurrency users and companies wanting to store highly sensitive information, space is an ideal location, as it’s — as of now — out of reach for hackers. “No one has really hacked satellites yet,” says data storage consultant Tom Coughlin. “It doesn’t mean they can’t; it just means it takes a fair amount of resources to be able to do that.”

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LyteLoop satellite rendering.

Source LyteLoop

The storage of space in space can’t replace traditional data centers anytime soon, experts caution. Cloud Constellation is planning to store only 1 petabyte of information on each of its satellites, once they’re launched. Facebook’s data center Hive was storing 300 petabytes in 2014. Other projects that some of these startups are working on could use up a large amount of energy, according to Coughlin, counteracting their energy savings in space. LyteLoop holds a patent for a tunnel-like structure on the ground, where data would move back and forth with the help of lasers.

Meanwhile, data giants such as Amazon, Google and Apple are increasingly embracing renewable energy to power their data centers. In Virginia, the American state with the most data centers, Apple last year went completely green. That success, if replicated across the industry, could undercut the environmental impetus to send data into space. That’s especially true considering that it costs $2,500 to send a pound of data into space, which is costlier than what it takes to store that much in a center using renewable energy.

But many experts warn that the coming explosion in need for data storage may simply prove impossible to meet — especially using renewable energy — on Earth. In 2017, Google, Amazon and Microsoft together spent $20 billion on setting up new data centers. By 2025, we’ll need storage for sextillion — that’s a billion times a trillion — bytes, an estimated 10 times the data stored in 2016. Companies like Amazon, which had promised to turn all its data centers green by 2014, are still struggling to do so, though they have made progress.

It’s a future even corporate giants appear to recognize. In 2018, Amazon Web Services — which manages the firm’s cloud data storage — launched a ground station allowing others to rent out satellites, a move expected to make the storage of data in space cheaper. And IBM plans to store its AI system Watson on Cloud Constellation’s satellites.

“Even if we moved 1 to 2 percent of all of the data that’s being stored on the ground into space,” says Beek, “I think we could make an impact.”

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