Phison is taking its SSDs to the moon with NASA approval

Moon surface and Earth on the horizon
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Dima Zel)

Data storage hardware company Phison has announced its 8TB M.2 2280 SSD has passed flight qualification tests as the company gears up to assist “cislunar service” company Lonestar’s attempt to put a data center on the moon by the second half of 2023.

The NASA-backed certification follows the announcement of a partnership between Phison and Skycorp in September 2022, aimed at resolving the processing and archiving of data in space.

The SSD in question was selected by Phison partner Skycorp, which is also acting as Lonestar’s contractor, engineering and design partner for the mission.

Lonestar’s lunar data center

“After a comprehensive testing and certification process, Phison is thrilled that our SSD technology has passed all the rigorous requirements for Lonestar’s upcoming Moon mission,’’ said K.S. Pua, Phison CEO. 

“We are excited about playing a vital role on this important mission, and other future ones as we continue our foray into the new frontier.”

Before Phison’s 8TB M.2 achieved NASA certification - Technology Readiness Level 6 (TRL-6), to be precise - it had to pass a series of tests, including being subjected to the deep cryogenic temperatures and vacuum conditions found on the moon.

Speaking exclusively with TechRadar Pro, Sebastien Jean, Chief Technology Officer at Phison, explained that while there are always difficulties in taking data to space, the way the company designs its SSDs is designed to mitigate the new challenges that space can pose for data longevity. 

“HDDs are not recommended for space missions due to their fragility of moving parts, higher power consumption, slower performance, and heavy construction that is not economical to leave planet Earth,” he notes. “SSDs in comparison are thin, light, very reliable, high performance and consume considerably less power.”

“SSDs that are used in space missions are developed in tandem with a proper computer motherboard and chassis enclosure to withstand the challenges of space environments.  With proper planning, the data stored on SSDs in space can have as good or even better data retention than what we typically design for on Earth.”

Phison is no stranger to interstellar travel, with a 8GB uSSD aboard the Mars Perseverance Rover and a 4TB SSD inside Skycorp’s RISC-V based computer on the International Space Station (ISS).

The first data center containing Phison’s 8TB SSD will be a payload on NASA’s NOVA-C lander, as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in collaboration with aerospace company Intuitive Machines. 

“Phison is proving to be a superb provider,” said Christopher Stott, Founder and CEO of Lonestar. “We are truly heartened that the qualification tests have gone well, and that our payload has passed these fundamental next steps for spaceflight. Our next giant leap is the Moon itself.”

Going forward, Lonestar will launch a series of data centers on Moon to provide off-site archival services. For its part, Phison hopes to contribute to more missions to the moon, “nearby space installations”, and other planets in the solar system.

 One small step for NAND 

 The dividends, Jean claims, offer much to get excited about for enterprises and small businesses. 

“Phison’s support of future missions [...] will require that we develop higher capacity storage with smaller form factors, low power consumption, great performance and reliability in even the toughest environments. These are all benefits that can be taken advantage of back here on Earth.”

“As seen in spacecraft, servers have a limited number of PCIe lanes. This favors a smaller number of very fast and very dense drives. Combined with the high reliability of SSDs and fast rebuild time, the preference for lower density storage is going away. We can expect to see 64TB – 256TB highly reliable enterprise SSDs as we move towards 2TB NAND die.”

Jean also claims that Phison’s research in overcoming space-specific threats to reliable data storage have legitimate earthbound applications.

“Space missions typically have a unique set of design challenges to optimize for SSD storage. However, common issues are operation in extreme temperatures, resiliency to possible damage by cosmic rays, and shock and vibration from takeoff and landing.”

“Phison has been studying the impact of charged particles on our controllers and we are building in an extra shielding layer as protection. This shielding layer in the controller also has a real-world benefit back on Earth to protect against potential hackers scanning the inner structure of the controller with X-Rays.”

“Another benefit that trickles down is an increased focus on detecting and counting high-energy particle strikes that generate bit-flips. They happen on earth too, particularly at high altitude locations like Colorado and for aircraft flying at 60,000 ft. This will increase the fault tolerance of our enterprise solutions above what is typically in use today.”

Corporations in space

 Jean also noted that a large part of taking data storage at scale to space is security. 

“When a data center is installed in space or on the surface of the moon the physical isolation of data from bad actors will prevent attacks against stolen data or data manipulation.”

“However, care must be given to the digital pathways into and out of the data center so hackers from Earth cannot interfere with data. Space operation centers generally ensure a physical airgap with the outside world. They do not allow WiFi any connections to the Internet.  Data is physically moved to the operations side using portable media.”

While this will be good news for corporations looking to protect themselves and their data in the future, Jean also noted that the financial cost for entering space is decreasing, and will only continue to do so owing to the growth of the commercial space industry. This means that putting data in space is by no means a foolproof plan.

“We do not take the physical isolation of lunar storage for granted and ensure our solutions meet NIST FIPS 140-3 guidelines while also moving towards active side-channel attack detection and mitigation. There is no such thing as unbeatable security, but we do our best to raise the bar.”

Given that corporations are starting to take more of an interest in space, Jean insists that Phison is committed to protecting space from the inevitable littering problems caused by an influx of electronic waste.

“Environmental sustainability is a very important design and manufacturing principle that Phison is committed to. As we improve our techniques for making SSDs here on Earth, we will extend this knowledge to the blueprint designs for data centers located in space.”

“On Earth there is something known as a “forklift upgrade” where data centers can rapidly switch out older technology with the newest generation using heavy equipment. This just isn’t possible in space so designs must be originally planned with future upgrades in mind with recycling and repurposing of outdated materials.”

Jean was, however, less willing to entertain the notion that corporate ownership of space is anything to worry about.

“Space is unimaginably vast. It has the same potential for new services that the Internet has today.  For this reason alone, it is unlikely that space would become the sole domain of data storage or large companies. The vastness of space means that no one can control it.”

While storing data in space is an appealing prospect for keeping data safe, there are extant problematic implications that won’t disappear simply because a corporation professes good intentions. 

There’s still time for environmental waste reduction programs to take shape, but there is also time for space to go the way of the internet - impossibly vast, yes, but with the most popular destinations and services controlled by only a handful of companies such as, er - Amazon.

But everything, from the benefits to the consequences, feels academic at the moment. We’re still a very way off from reliably being able to store data in space, and any benefits to existing Earth tech that we’re seeing or may see are inessential. Jean may be exaggerating just how close we are to a transformation of the way humanity stores data, and how fast we’re getting there.

Luke Hughes
Staff Writer

 Luke Hughes holds the role of Staff Writer at TechRadar Pro, producing news, features and deals content across topics ranging from computing to cloud services, cybersecurity, data privacy and business software.