Scientists propose to place supercomputers in orbit

Russian scientists have announced a project to deploy data centers and supercomputers in space. This will reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions on Earth. The orbital complex will consist of solar panels, an energy converter, heat release devices, and equipment for processing and transmitting information. Experts note that such a project is especially relevant for quantum computers that operate at ultra-low temperatures. However, the profitability of sending a data center into space is still in question – it is not clear whether all the advantages of the project will outweigh the significant costs of launching such stations into orbit.

Sun nutrition

Data centers and supercomputers that process and store huge amounts of data can be placed in near-Earth space. This will reduce their consumption of electricity and emissions of huge amounts of heat into the atmosphere. The development of such a project “Izvestia” was reported by scientists from MSTU. N.E. Bauman. For their work, such orbital complexes will use solar energy, and space communication technology will help transmit information to Earth.

“The proposed space complex should include solar panels, a power supply and heat removal system, as well as target equipment for the production and processing of information, telecommunications equipment for data transmission,” said the author of the project, professor at the Department of Aerospace Systems of the Moscow State Technical University. N.E. Bauman Georgy Shcheglov. – If several such centers are created, they should be able to exchange data with each other in order to form a “space cloud”.

In his opinion, the ideal location for the station is the so-called Lagrange point L1. In it, the Sun is never blocked by either the Earth or the Moon, so the generation of energy by the batteries will not stop. In addition, at this point, the gravitations of the Sun and the Earth are approximately equal, so very little energy is required to keep the station in this region of space.

Photo: Roscosmos

At the current level of development of computer technology, computers can work reliably in outer space, the authors of the work say. From 2017 to 2019, an experiment was conducted to operate the Hewlett Packard Enterprise supercomputer on the ISS. In a year and a half, he overcame an area with high levels of radiation, which is considered fatal to electronics, more than 6.8 thousand times, and was able to execute the test code more than 2 thousand times without a single bit error.

“Data can be transmitted to a supercomputer not only from the Earth, but also, for example, from a constellation of meteorological satellites,” Georgy Shcheglov added. “As a result of the calculation, instead of a large amount of “raw” data from satellites, meteorologists will receive a ready-made weather forecast, which is of much greater value.

According to the calculations of scientists, the creation of a data center in orbit will be completely cost-effective, given the impact of ground-based installations of this type on the climate. Currently, information processing centers are becoming one of the largest consumers of energy and a source of waste heat.

Time to cool off

Today, the difficulties of locating such complexes are associated not so much with the difficulties of deploying large-sized fields of solar panels in space, but with the need to develop systems for wireless energy transmission over long distances, some experts believe.

Photo: Global Look Press/Marijan Murat

“At the moment, the main potential consumers of space data center services are satellites and space stations,” explained Alexander Biryukov, head of IT and development at the NTI Competence Center for Big Data at Moscow State University. “It is much easier to process terabytes of accumulated data right in space and send only the results of processing to the ground, since the communication channel with the Earth is limited. According to open data, the Russian Federation has about a hundred satellites in space. Given the trend towards the use of exclusively national computing power, demand will most likely be limited to Russia itself and countries that cannot afford such data centers.

Some experts critically assessed this project, but noted several potentially interesting points in it.

“Although solar energy can be beneficial for supplying the station, the cost of putting a satellite into orbit will more than cover all the benefits of using this type of energy,” said Sergey Vorozhtsov, business analyst at SR Data. — At the same time, this initiative can be used as a unique PR move.

On average, satellites operate in orbit from five years, but there are examples when the service life reaches 9–10 years, said Anton Alekseev, General Director of JSC AK Novy Kosmos (the company is a participant in the NTI Aeronet market). But it is also important to take into account that in connection with the specified period, constant replacement of satellites and their renewal will be required.

According to Alexander Biryukov, the project has a strategic value in testing the dispatch and maintenance of data centers in space.

Photo: Roscosmos

“This approach will become especially important with the mass introduction of quantum computers, which require especially low temperatures and a stable environment for operation – outer space is ideal for these purposes,” the specialist explained.

Currently, the authors of the work are conducting a feasibility study and business planning of the project.

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