Logistics players paving their way into space
After reaching out to the remotest corners of the planet Earth, logistics players are now eyeing deliveries to space. Space logistics, now in an embryonic phase within the logistics industry, represents a potential niche as tens of thousands of low- and medium-Earth-orbit satellites get launched in the next few years.
It has been more than half a century since man sets his foot on the lunar surface. Fast forward to today, there are almost 3,000 active satellites in orbit around Earth today, and this number is expected to skyrocket in the coming years.
The European Commission, for example, recently announced plans to launch thousands of satellites into orbit around Earth, adding to a growing list of planned mega-constellations launches. In fact, factoring in the supply and demand of a permanent presence on the moon, NASA is asking the industry to come up with innovative ways to transport cargo to and from a lunar outpost. In fact, there is an entire supply chain making its way to the moon and beyond throwing open of opportunities for putting cargo in space. In the public sector, the space agency is working closely with commercial partners to accomplish its mission.
In 2011, NASA retired the iconic Space Shuttle Program, opening the door to new organizations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. These ambitious ventures won NASA contracts to supply third-party logistics to the space station, using unmanned autonomous vehicles to deliver everything from fresh fruit and coffee to scientific instruments and repair materials. In 2018, NASA established the Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS initiative, encouraging the US commercial space industry to introduce new lander technologies to deliver cargo to the Moon’s surface. In 2019, it awarded $7 billion in space transportation contracts, setting a new record.
On the other hand, logistics players like DHL, UPS and Fedex are also getting excited about this space. Last month, DHL Global Forwarding, the air and ocean freight specialist of Deutsche Post DHL Group, announced its partnership with new space company D-Orbit to jointly tackle terrestrial challenges and leverage galactic opportunities. Today, both companies are partnering on delivering high-value and fragile space equipment on earth, including services such as planning, packaging and transportation. The future partnership will combine DHL’s logistics competencies and D-Orbit’s space expertise to explore logistics solutions end-to-end.
In December 2020, DHL Global Forwarding ensured that the ION Satellite Carrier made a safe journey into space. The first leg included an eleven-hour flight from Milan to Miami in December 2020, followed by ground transport to Cape Canaveral. Now, this innovative logistics vehicle is being readied for launch in early 2021 from the spaceport in Florida.
The ION Satellite Carrier, with a total weight of around 200 kg, was shipped from Milan Malpensa airport to Miami with a stopover in Luxembourg. Source: DHL
Weighing in at around 200 kilograms, the satellite carrier was loaded onto a customized metal platform for the trip from Italy to the United States. A complete set of test equipment essential for the satellite’s integrity and safety before launch were also part of the journey.
While the supply chain for space logistics may initially seem complicated and daunting, at the end of the day, in its most basic form, it is still the action of moving a product from point A to point B and figuring out how to do so while balancing speed, security, cost, and other important factors for the customer. There are definitely added complexities like product sensitivity but technologies like IoT sensor solutions exist today and are implemented to help prevent or monitor the product as it is moved through the supply chain.
Klaus Dohrmann, vice president - Sector Development, DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation explained, “Launch schedules demand particular lead times with crucial dates that are often inflexible – if a satellite does not deliver on time, it may not be loaded into the rocket for the upcoming launch. Space logistics supply chains need to rely on reputable partners with predictable delivery times to avoid what could be costly consequences.”
Recently, Emirates SkyCargo transported a space satellite the Brazilian Amazonia-1 from Sao José dos Campos to the Indian city of Chennai. Amazonia-1 is the first satellite to be developed entirely in Brazil by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazil's main agency dedicated to space research and exploration.
The satellite, which took eight years to develop, will help monitor the ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest, the largest rainforest on the planet. It will be sent into space in February 2021 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the east coast of India.
Amazonia-1, the first satellite developed in Brazil by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), was transported by Emirates SkyCargo from Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil to Chennai, India. Source: INPE
Transport of this satellite was not an easy task and required close collaboration between Emirates SkyCargo, INPE, Sao Jose dos Campos airport and local partners. Two simulation sessions were carried out prior to the date of the trip so that the sensitive cargo could be transported safely. In addition, the airline had to apply for a special permit to operate a Boeing 777 freighter and make other arrangements to ensure that the satellite would arrive in India in optimal conditions. During the transportation process, the Amazonia-1 satellite was dismantled into multiple components to facilitate easy loading and unloading from the aircraft. The satellite components were packed inside large containers to avoid any damage during the transport. Overall, the total cargo weighed around 22 tonnes. Four members of the team from INPE also travelled with the satellite to continuously monitor the status of the cargo during the flight from Sao Jose dos Campos to Dubai and then onwards to Chennai, India.
The challenges of the transportation of satellites, whether as a whole or in parts, mainly surround the fact that they cannot simply be shipped like ordinary paper mail or holiday gifts from their origin to the launch site – often at remote places. Satellites and their equipment can be expensive and are usually quite sensitive to external forces like temperature and vibration. Packaging, which often comes in the form of these large secure containers, need to adequately protect their space-destined contents, whether it be on a high-altitude flight or on a bumpy road, and ensure that the contents reach the launch site in pristine condition, all the while fitting within the guidelines and standards of supply chains. “Finding suppliers that would be able to meet the special criteria and needs of the customer may prove to be challenging,” added Dohrmann.
In September 2020, Ukraine-based Antonov Airlines partnered with Bolloré Logistics to deliver Airbus Defence and Space’s newest satellite, ANASIS-II to the USA. It was carried from Airbus Defence and Space’s facility in Toulouse by one of the airline’s seven AN-124-100s. The direct flight landed at Florida’s NASA Shuttle Landing Facility to deliver the satellite for its first launch with SpaceX. The satellite container used to deliver ANASIS-II measured eleven metres in length and weighed 18 tonnes. Including launch equipment, it was part of an overall payload of 36 tonnes.
Antonov-124-100 carried Airbus Defence and Space’s satellite ANASIS-II from Airbus Defence and Space’s facility in Toulouse (France). Source: Antonov Airlines
Commenting on the complexity of moving such sensitive cargo, Serhii Bilozerov, commercial executive, Antonov Airlines said, “A special environment is required during air transportation for satellites and space-related items (able to handle specific temperatures, pressures, G-forces). To facilitate this, special containers are used for such transportation. These special containers have to meet requirements to be loaded into AN124:dimensions, weight, lashing and lifting abilities, requirements to bottom surface of container. Then, conditions inside cargohold and container have to be monitored during the flight.”
Antonov Airlines has its own monitoring equipment and engineers from Antonov’s side present on such flights to perform such monitoring, Bilozerov added. “To overcome the challenge with dimensions of the satellite container, Antonov Airlines has designed and manufactured special low-profile loading equipment for the safe loading of this unique cargo,” he said.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft completed its first cargo resupply mission to and from the International Space Station, and SpaceX’s 21st Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-21) mission for NASA to-date, after successfully returning to Earth on January 13, 2021. It became the first cargo spacecraft to splash down off the coast of Florida. This was the first flight of the updated cargo version of Dragon, which is capable of carrying about 20 percent more volume than the previous version of Dragon and double the amount of powered locker cargo. Dragon’s new design also permits for up to five flights to and from the space station, and this cargo version of the spacecraft can stay on station more than twice as long as the previous version.
With such exciting developments in the logistics to space and the growing competition between global players and incremental rise in private investments, the possibilities are endless for this new niche within the logistics sector.