Contact Us

The New Digital Space Race: Data Centers In Orbit And Internet On The Moon

If you glanced skyward on a clear night over the past month, you may have caught sight of a rare celestial show, with five different planets visible. This is the first time since 2004 that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can all be seen at once.

While this space oddity will disappear in the coming days, many in the digital infrastructure sector are increasingly looking to the night sky and seeing valuable real estate.

A SpaceX satellite, sitting far above the world.

The past year has seen growing commitment from both governments and private industry to making space-based digital infrastructure — including data centers — a reality.

Hyperscale cloud providers like Amazon Web Services are launching edge computing units into space and modifying their terrestrial data centers to provide connectivity for the merging satellite internet market. And while data centers on the moon may sound like the stuff of science fiction, lunar digital infrastructure is becoming a key front in an emerging space race between the U.S., the European Union and China.

AWS Sends Micro Data Center Into Space

Amazon's cloud computing subsidiary has successfully deployed an off-the-shelf edge processing node known as a Snowcone aboard the International Space Station, the company announced this week. 

Through a partnership with private spaceflight company Axiom Space, the Snowcone was used to collect, process and transmit data from a series of scientific experiments over 17 days. Astronauts communicated remotely with the device and applied sophisticated machine learning to analyze images.

Weighing just 5 pounds and around the size of a tissue box, the Snowcone was not designed for space but for use as a mini edge data center that runs AWS applications in locations on Earth with little or no connectivity.

The device can communicate wirelessly with surrounding equipment or sensors, and performs processing tasks that greatly reduce the amount of data that ultimately needs to be transmitted back to Earth. That data can either be stored on the device or can be transmitted once connectivity is established. 

“AWS is committed to eliminating the traditional barriers encountered in a space environment, including latency and bandwidth limitations,” AWS Director of Aerospace and Satellite Clint Crosier said in the announcement. “Performing imagery analysis close to the source of the data, on orbit, is a tremendous advantage because it can improve response times and allow the crew to focus on other mission-critical tasks. This demonstration will help our teams assess how we can make edge processing a capability available to crews for future space missions.”

Experts tell Bisnow that the Snowcone’s mission on the ISS is a significant endorsement of the importance of space-based processing and storage from the biggest player in the cloud and data center landscape. AWS’ announcement frames the project as preparation for a growing business opportunity in low Earth orbit.

“They’re definitely putting their chips on the table by doing this — they're saying this is going to be a thing,” said Rick Ward, CEO of OrbitsEdge, a Florida-based aerospace company that aims to place servers on satellites. “It’s definitely significant, and there will be other companies who start to wonder why they’re not doing this sort of thing as well.”

The International Space Station

Ward said the Snowcone’s use on the ISS is also significant because it suggests that operators are increasingly looking for ways to use off-the-rack computing equipment rather than the custom-designed, mission-specific equipment that is currently the standard. Most standard computing equipment can’t withstand the harsh environmental conditions in space.

While the Snowcone operated within the relatively shielded environment of the ISS, Ward says its use is part of a growing trend of space agencies looking for systems that let them plug and play standard processors, just like a data center on Earth.

“We’re looking for solutions that let you scale, that let you plug and play, to swap out spare parts and use software that’s off the shelf, as opposed to having to develop and use bespoke hardware,” Ward said. “The big thing that we're trying to do is bring the efficiencies and capabilities that exist here on the ground, to the space arena.”

The Moon Emerges As Key Front In Digital Space Race

China’s National Space Administration announced in April that the agency plans to deploy a constellation of communications satellites around the moon that will provide digital connectivity to the lunar surface.

According to the CNSA, the proposed system will provide the digital infrastructure required to successfully operate three lunar probes the agency plans to launch by 2030 and to eventually support a research station on the moon.

China’s new satellite system — along with its lunar ambitions — directly parallels existing projects by NASA and the European Space Agency that effectively plan to bring the internet to the moon by creating what one NASA official called “an off-planet service provider.”  

Projects like NASA’s so-called LunaNet and China’s proposed satellite system represent the early stages of an escalating, multilateral space race that has been accelerated by the advent of commercial spaceflight. NASA, the ESA and the CNSA all aim to place humans on the moon and set up permanent research stations there within the next decade, with the lunar missions serving as a training ground for the exploration of Mars. 

As the competing lunar network projects attest, achieving these ambitions requires creating a foundation of space-based connectivity from which to build the kind of communications and computing networks available on Earth. And while space exploration entails a great deal of international cooperation, experts paint a picture of an increasingly adversarial competition, with digital infrastructure emerging as a crucial front in the new space race. 

“Space is at a really interesting inflection point,” said Makena Young, an associate fellow with the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You’re seeing a great deal of collaboration, but you’re also seeing a lot more competition and countries that want to have their own infrastructure in space or on the moon and not have to rely on anyone else for certain missions.”

And just as suspicions surrounding physical security and digital espionage — particularly involving geopolitical rivals like China, Russia and the U.S. — have shaped development of data centers and digital infrastructure on Earth, so have these concerns translated to space-based systems. A CSIS study noted a significant uptick in threats to space-based infrastructure over the past year. 

Some of these threats are physical: Russia successfully tested an anti-satellite missile system last year, joining the U.S., China and India as the only countries operating these weapons. But Young said that cyberattacks and electronic jamming currently represent a far greater threat. She points to a series of incidents in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in which hackers disrupted satellite imaging systems and Russia successfully jammed efforts to provide satellite-based internet to parts of Ukraine. 

“Cyberattacks are something that are becoming way more common, and there's been a ton of jamming targeting both military and commercial assets,” Young said. “Some of the attacks can even change data, which I think is the most terrifying to think about happening to our space assets.”