Lunar Data Center Concept a Giant Leap for IT

Humans are headed back to the Moon to stay. To support their operations, they’re going to need a nearby data center.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

May 9, 2023

4 Min Read
half moon pitch black sky
João-Pierre S. Ruth

The Moon has suddenly become a hot property. China has proposed building Moon bases using lunar soil and 3D-printing technology. Meanwhile, last year, NASA awarded a contract to a Texas firm to develop construction technologies that could help build infrastructure, such as landing pads, habitats, and roads on the lunar surface.

There’s increased interest in space exploration across the board, says Lars Cromley, a technology fellow with Deloitte Consulting. “Right now, organizations both public and private are pursuing missions to the lunar surface,” he notes. “If these organizations are to be successful, then I believe that will create a need for the capability to provide compute and storage on the lunar surface.”

As soon as people start doing more on the Moon or elsewhere in space, digital technology will follow, says Tom Coughlin, an IEEE Life Fellow and president of technology analysis firm Coughlin Associates. The biggest reason for having local lunar data centers is the latency occurring while passing information between the Earth and Moon can cause delays resulting in various problems, including reduced productivity, he explains.

Lunar Data Centers: Collaborative Effort

Lunar data centers are likely to be built in a collaborative effort involving commercial space companies with interests on the lunar surface, civil space agencies, and other government agencies, Cromley says. “Public-private collaborations and partnerships are becoming much more commonplace, and this trend is likely to extend to the lunar surface as it has to the rest of the space industry,” he notes.

Constructing and operating a lunar data center presents multiple challenges. The first task would be transporting the necessary materials and personnel to a difficult-to-reach and unimaginably hostile site. Routine data center operations would also be highly demanding. “If we don’t have maintenance personnel for on-site tasks, then general-tasking robots would be necessary,” Cromley says.

The Moon’s extreme environment will also play a major role in any data center construction project. Challenges include wild temperature fluctuations, radiation, and poor heat dissipation. Meanwhile, lunar dust -- sharp and abrasive due to low gravity and no atmosphere -- would pose a serious threat to sensitive electronic components. On-site energy production and storage is another important issue that would have to be addressed before data center construction could begin. “The lunar night is about 14 days, which means there would have to be a significant [power] storage option or an in-orbit power station,” Cromley says.

Given the immense challenges facing builders, Cromley notes that a Moon data center would probably bear little resemblance to its Earth-based counterparts. “We might look to host something close to the surface in cislunar orbit,” he states. “That could solve at least one or more issues in providing [data center] capabilities in close proximity to astronauts.”

There are number of reasons why a cislunar orbit data center might make more sense than an Earth- or Moon-based facility, including continuously available solar power, reduced infrastructure requirements, faster data transmission to-and-from Earth, and overall flexibility. “That isn’t to say there wouldn’t be trade-offs,” Cromley warns. “There needs to be propellant and propulsion capabilities to maintain orbit and provide position adjustments or perform maneuvers.” A cislunar orbit data center would also have exposure to orbital debris and radiation. “But there are companies working on those solutions today,” he says.

Coughlin believes companies that currently build hardware for conventional Earth-based data centers will supply needed equipment in an extraterrestrial data center. “There are several startups that are looking at creating data centers in space as well as on the Moon,” he notes.

Use Cases for Lunar Data Center Support

Scientific research and exploration teams will likely be the first parties requiring lunar data center support. “Within that [group] there may be habitat projects, lunar prospecting, and efforts to begin harvesting lunar ice,” Cromley says. Other project teams, specializing in energy, resources, and industrial (ER&I) applications, or industrial products and construction (IP&C) services, would also require significant compute resources. “There are some more ‘out-there’ applications worth considering, such as hosting highly secure data storage for archival purposes,” he adds.

Cromley says he’s hopeful about the eventual establishment of a permanent Moon presence, but notes that success will require access to computational systems that don’t rely on an Earth-based infrastructure. “If we are to truly make progress in understanding the Moon, advancing our knowledge of our place in the solar system, we will need to bring the technology to where the research is happening,” he states. “The challenges are not insignificant, but they are also not impossible.”

“Wherever humans go, our technologies will follow,” Coughlin says. “Outer space is the ‘outer edge’.”

What to Read Next:

Space: The Next Tech Industry Frontier?

Nuclear-Powered Data Centers: Practical or a Pipe Dream?

What You Need to Know About Neuromorphic Computing

About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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