WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
With all this talk of colonising the Moon, and Mars, we’re going to need technology to support the colonists – and a data center.
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So far I’ve talked about companies who are planning on building 4G networks, nuclear power stations, rocket pads, and villages on the Moon, and now it turns out that a datacenter could be built on the Moon before the end of the decade as part of an international effort to create a permanent base on our nearest neighbour.
As part of the wider NASA Artemis Moon program Italian space agency ASI commissioned Thales Alenia Space (TAS) to study 16 design concepts that would support a human presence on the Moon – including a datacenter.
Eleonora Zeminiani, the head of the aerospace company’s Human Exploration New Initiatives division, has been talking about how a datacenter will be key to living on the Moon.
By 2024, NASA hopes to put the first woman and person of colour on the Moon as part of the first phase of Artemis, and then comes Phase 2 – “Sustainability” – which is all about developing a long term moonbase.
“This means that [the datacenter] is an element needed after 2025 and towards the end of the decade because that’s the timeframe in which consistent lunar infrastructure is currently planned for deployment and the Lunar Data Center will need to be there to serve it,” Zeminiani said.
The TAS project will investigate 16 key high level architectural elements for future sustainable lunar exploration, Zeminiani explained.
“For example, rovers, orbital platforms, surface habitats… among these one [element] is the Lunar Data Center (LDC). In other words, we devoted one of the 16 study streams entirely to the LDC. This is because we believe the LDC would be a major building block that’d be able to serve most – if not all – of the other elements, and a game changer in how we design and operate the other systems.”
The study will aim to investigate the architecture and design of the datacenter, with TAS and its partners proposing a few initial solutions, each “extremely different one from another.”
With the process still in its early days TAS is first trying to determine what the LDC will need to be used for.
“Then, based on those requirements we will be able to assess the different [datecenter] configurations to find the most promising one,” Zeminiani said.
Currently, lunar rovers and proposed systems use a mixture of on-board Edge computing and direct line of sight communication to Earth based compute resources which, in the future, could be further enabled by NASA’s development of the first delay tolerant networks.
“However, our goal here is to look beyond that, to truly explore the case for an LDC,” Zeminiani explained. “For many needs, relying on Earth-based computational resources is simply not acceptable, because communications with Earth are subject to a [noticeable] latency, one order of magnitude bigger than what we consider acceptable for today’s VoIP standards and two orders of magnitude bigger than the desired standard for low latency applications such as virtual machines and network storage.”
While it is closer than the Earth the proposed Lunar Gateway is also not suitable for a data center, the company said. The space station expects to serve as a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, short-term habitation module, and holding area for robots.
“But it is not designed to sustain heavy computational demand from external clients,” Zeminiani said, who did not rule out putting the LDC in an orbital location of its own.
The study is set to be completed before the end of the year, with the company still to determine how much of the results will be made public, and if and when the facility is live on the Moon it will connect to Nokia’s Moon based cellular network. Both will form part of LunaNet that I discussed earlier this year.
“My goal with LunaNet is that it’ll be just as enabling as the Internet was to the Earth,” said NASA project head David Israel. “Once this whole network-based mindset gets into the user side, the people planning the missions, then there’ll be all sorts of new types of missions and applications that just grow out of it.”