Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in the darkness below the surface of the Moon.
Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build data centres on the Moon backing up the world’s data.
“It’s inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we’re setting off bombs and burning things,” Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. “We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe.”
Stott said Lonestar’s efforts to build a data storage facility in space are a bit like trying to preserve all of the world’s seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen. But instead of trying to protect crop diversity, the upstart wants to safeguard human knowledge.
“If we don’t do this, what will happen to our data on Earth?” he asked. “The seed bank flooded due to effects of climate change. It’s also susceptible to other forms of destruction like war or cyber-attacks. We need to have somewhere we can keep our data safe.” Lonestar has its sights set on the Moon.
One side of our natural satellite is tidally locked and constantly faces Earth, meaning it would be possible to set up a constant, direct line-of-sight communication between devices on the Moon and our planet.
Lonestar is currently closing its $5m seed round from investors like Seldor Capital and 2 Future Holding. To raise more money, it’ll have to prove its technology is feasible and will start with small demos on commercial lunar payloads. Last month, it announced it had signed contracts to launch prototype demonstrations of its software and hardware capabilities aboard two lunar landers with NASA-funded aerospace biz Intuitive Machines.
Under the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, Intuitive Machines will, after some delay, send its Nova-C lander to the Moon for its first mission, dubbed IM-1, at the end of 2022. Lonestar will run a software-only test, storing a small bit of data on the lander’s hardware. IM-1 is expected to last one lunar day, an equivalent of two weeks on Earth.
The second launch, IM-2, is more ambitious. Intuitive Machines plans to send another Nova-C lander to the Moon’s South Pole carrying various bits of equipment, including NASA’s PRIME-1 drill for ice and a spectrometer as well as Lonestar’s first hardware prototype: a one-kilogram storage device, the size of a hardback novel, with 16 terabytes of memory. IM-2 is expected to launch in 2023.
Robots and lava tubes
The tiny proof-of-concept data centre will be storing immutable data for Lonestar’s early beta of its so-called Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS), Stott told us. “[We will be] performing upload and download tests (think refresh and restore of data), and performing edge processing tests of apps as well. It will be running Ubuntu.” The company is still in the process of determining bandwidth rates, and has secured permissions to transmit data to the Moon and back to Earth in the S, X, and Ka-Bands in the radio spectrum.
Lonestar’s opportunity to test its technology on the Moon for the first time will depend on whether Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C landers successfully make it to the lunar surface in one piece. Soft landings on the Moon are notoriously difficult; numerous endeavours from the Soviets and the US in the Sixties have failed. The last two attempts that ended badly were in 2019 when Israel’s SpaceIL and India’s National Space agency’s respectively crashed their Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 lunar landers.
The strong gravitational pull of the Moon and its very thin atmosphere means the speeds at which spacecraft approach the surface have to be considerably slowed in a short amount of time to land gently. Nailing the landing process is key to lunar exploration, whether it’s sending robotic spacecraft or a crew of astronauts.
“Our turnkey solution for delivering, communicating, and commanding customer payloads on and around the Moon is revolutionary,” Intuitive’s president and CEO, Steve Altemus, told us in a statement. “Adding Lonestar Data Holdings and other commercial payloads to our lunar missions are critical steps toward Intuitive Machines creating and defining the lunar economy.”
The path from a book-sized prototype to real fully-fledged cloud storage data centres, however, is handwavy. Stott said Lonestar has plans for future missions to launch servers capable of holding five petabytes of data in 2024, and 50 petabytes of data by 2026. By then, he hopes the data centre will be able to host data traffic to and from the Moon at rates of 15 Gigabits per second – much faster than home internet broadband speeds – beamed from a series of antennas.
If the company is to continue scaling and storing data long-term, it’ll have to figure out how to protect its data centres from cosmic radiation and deal with the Moon’s fluctuating surface temperatures, which can go from a scorching 222.8°F (106°C) during the day to a -297.4°F (-183°C) at night.
Stott has an answer for that: nestle the datacenters in lunar lava tubes, cavernous pits bored below the surface of the Moon by the flow of ancient basaltic lava. Inside these pits, the temperature will be steadier and the servers will be better shielded from harmful electromagnetic rays.
And how will the Lonestar get them down there? “Robots… lots of robots,” Stott said.