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New MIT Supply Chain Software Is Far Out -- In Space

Researchers at MIT have created software to model supply chains for delivering oxygen, food, fuel, exploration equipment, and spare parts to outer space.
The logistics of freight shipping are a bit more complicated in outer space.

Since NASA hopes to have people staying in a long-term lunar station by 2020, researchers at MIT have created software to model supply chains for delivering oxygen, food, fuel, exploration equipment, and spare parts.

Olivier de Weck, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, and David Simchi-Levi, professor of engineering systems and civil and environmental engineering, created SpaceNet. The supply chain software maps out space routes for delivering goods. MIT announced SpaceNet 1.3, the latest version, on Thursday.

De Weck and Simchi-Levi led a team that included MIT graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and research staff, with help from the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Lab, Payload Systems, and the United Space Alliance. With NASA funding, they wrote the software in Matlab, a computer language that's used for algorithms, data visualization and analysis, and numerical computation.

The software evaluates the ability of vehicles to carry pressurized and nonpressurized cargo, simulates traffic flow of vehicles and supplies, and calculates the fuel and time necessary for single missions and multiyear campaigns. It takes up to four days to get to the moon -- but several weeks to prepare for a launch.

The delivery system is based on nodes on planets, in stable orbits around the Earth, the moon and Mars, or defined points in space where gravitational pull between two bodies cancel each other out. The nodes act as transfer and consumption points.

The supply chain will operate on some of the same principles used by manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, although shipping capacity will sometimes be limited and delays could last up to nine months, de Weck said. A reliable system will increase exploration capabilities and improve the quality of scientific results, while reducing costs and risks, he said. The software is also supposed to allow engineers, planners and others focus on crews' exploration needs.

"Increasingly, there is a realization that crewed space missions such as the International Space Station or the buildup of a lunar outpost should not be treated as isolated missions, but rather as an integrated supply chain," de Weck said in a statement.