Think your supply chain is difficult? Try supplying life-saving equipment over a 54-million-kilometer voyage between two moving planetary bodies. Plus, your vehicle must carry all fuel onboard, and can’t stop for repairs along the way.

To prepare for manned missions to Mars or a return to the Moon, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an interplanetary supply chain management architecture for space exploration. Lead researcher Olivier de Weck says the team developed the SpaceNet software to model the flow of vehicles, crew, and cargo from the ground through space to orbit or a planetary surface.

Supply chain optimization is essential when it costs $15,000 per kilogram to push a payload into geosynchronous orbit, and an estimated $41,000 per kilogram to land cargo on the Moon. Long-range military operations and supply chains for remote areas such as NASA’s Arctic base gave some initial insights. The researchers created a network of space logistics spanning Earth, the Moon, and Mars, as well as Lagrangian points – locations where the offsetting gravity between planetary bodies makes it easier to park spacecraft.

From the research, two key elements emerged: pre-positioning and refueling. Creating a depot at the Earth-Moon Lagrangian point would allow spacecraft headed to the Moon or Mars to take on supplies en route. Similarly, flexible refueling strategies could reduce launch weight and cost and reduce safety risks.

The team has also developed a container that searches its own contents via RFID, helping astronauts to find critical items stored onboard. On the International Space Station (ISS), misplaced supplies have shut down space walks for several days. Being able to find items you need is vital when there is no way you can easily send for replacements.

The ISS relies on manned and unmanned capsules for resupply missions. Along with the space agencies from Europe, Japan, and Russia, two private sector companies operate supply craft. One of these, SpaceX, is using the ISS as training for an even more ambitious project – the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, thinks that humans could become multi-planetary by 2025.

And Musk is not alone. The Mars One mission is already selecting from thousands of applicants who are willing to make the one-way journey to the Red Planet, and live there for the rest of their lives.

— Gary Wollenhaupt

Published June 2014

Infografic: MIT Space Logistic