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The final frontier

Nearly 50 years after the last crewed lunar landing, the vision of colonizing space has reawakened. With plans for more manned and unmanned missions gaining momentum, efficient and sustainable logistics and supply chains will be critical for success in the space sector.

Space logistics is an emerging niche with enormous potential

© D-Orbit SpA. All rights reserved

Space has been dramatized in books and movies for years. People are fascinated by “the final frontier” – a phrase made legendary in Star Trek – because it awakens our adventurous side.

Until recently, space exploration still seemed like a distant dream. In the last decade, technological advances and the success of commercial space projects have accelerated the pace of progress. NASA’s Artemis Plan now intends to “land the first women and the next man on the Moon by 2024 – four years earlier than originally planned” and “build a sustained presence on the lunar surface in preparation for human exploration to Mars.”

As momentum gathers to make lunar colonization a reality, the space sector is already adding value to life on earth, like for instance climate and weather monitoring, global positioning systems, telecommunications, and data collection. The need for innovative logistics solutions – especially for satellite transportation – both on Earth and in space in the near term is growing. Space logistics is real and represents a potential niche market within the logistics industry.

And that potential is enormous. NASA is already thinking about the supply and demand of a permanent presence on the moon, asking industry for innovative ways to transport cargo to and from a lunar outpost. Private investment in the space sector has now reached almost US$5 billion, about double the amount in 2017. And the number of active satellites in the next ten years is expected to jump 20 times to 50,000, with giants like Amazon, Facebook, Samsung, and SpaceX leading the charge.

Space has become big business


Next NASA lunar mission


Active satellites in next decade


Pieces of space trash spinning around


US$ private investment in space sector

In the public sector, the world’s leading space agency is working closely with commercial partners to accomplish its mission. In 2018, NASA established the Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS initiative, encouraging the U.S. commercial space industry to introduce new lander technologies to deliver cargo to the Moon’s surface. In 2019, it awarded US$7 billion in space transportation contracts, setting a new record.


Growing questions

However, with these exciting developments in the private and public sectors, there are growing questions that need to be answered for space logistics to be successful and sustainable in the future.


How will supply lines be planned and managed?


How can we make transporting objects into space more sustainable?


How can goods be packaged to survive extreme forces or the exposure to high radiation?


How can we curb and reverse the accumulation of space debris?

These questions are not fundamentally different from those logistics providers ask every day, which means we can leverage our expertise to deliver innovative solutions for space and satellite logistics.

Satellite logistics that’s efficient and sustainable

© D-Orbit SpA. All rights reserved

Satellite logistics is one facet of space logistics that is quickly getting off the ground and harbors huge potential in the near term. In the next few years, we expect to see the launch of tens of thousands of low- and medium-Earth-orbit (LEO and MEO) satellites. Operators envision expansive constellations of hundreds to thousands of linked orbiters, providing services ranging from global internet services to data collection.

The big question is viability. Can orbital transport services make the satellite business more profitable and sustainable by reducing launch, operational, and decommissioning costs?

D-Orbit, an emerging leader in space logistics and orbital transport, thinks so. The Italian satellite launch and deployment company is targeting this demand with solutions that are not unlike those offered by logistics companies on Earth. They have designed and built the ION Satellite Carrier, the world’s first microsatellite cargo vehicle. The carrier can transport multiple satellites into space and release them into precise orbital slots. The service promises shorter deployment time, more rapid commissioning, and more efficient use of satellite lifecycles. D-Orbit estimates that it can reduce deployment costs by 40% and extend satellite life by up to five years.

The company also provides safe decommissioning services for end-of-life satellites to combat growing space debris. D-Orbit’s vision for the future includes in-space orbital transport services, such as operating satellite warehouses, moving existing satellites from one orbit to another, performing repairs, and refueling. Ultimately D-Orbit’s goal is to cover the entire life cycle of a space mission, thus optimizing resources and keeping space clean.



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Timelapse video of the transport preparations

Terrestrial challenges and galactic opportunities

DHL Global Forwarding made sure the ION Satellite Carrier had a safe journey here on planet Earth before delivering its payload 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 January 2021 from the world’s most famous spaceport in Florida.

Weighing in at around 200 kilograms, we loaded the satellite carrier onto a customized metal platform for the trip from Italy to the United States. A complete set of test equipment, which is essential to ensure the satellite’s integrity and safety before launch, went along for the ride.

A lot of pre-flight preparation went into shipping this sensitive piece of equipment. To tackle this challenge, DHL Global Forwarding teamed up with their colleagues from the DHL Innovation Center. Measures were put in place to control the climate, minimize vibration, and guarantee maximum safety at all times.

Businesses can profit from innovations along the entire supply chain that directly address the logistics challenges of today and tomorrow. DHL’s innovation experts bring together customers, research and academic institutions, industry partners, and logistics experts within the business divisions to enable collaboration.


Mission to the Moon

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The opportunities and challenges of space logistics

While the basics remain the same, whether on Earth or in space, the logistics of moving goods beyond our planet’s atmosphere and back will be extremely challenging. But with the rapid rise in private investment and fierce competition among global players, the opportunity is equally enormous.


  • New, expanding space logistics market now open to viable private operations, ripe for exploration and testing of technologies and business models
  • In-space, lunar, and planetary warehousing of upmass, such as food rations, equipment, and satellites, will create the need for stable, on-demand supply chains
  • Chance to set standards and trends for the future of space logistics (e.g., packaging and service expectations) 


  • Extreme temperatures, zero gravity, and other special conditions limit employable  goods, materials, and modes of transport
  • Launch vehicle dimensions and weight restrictions hinder the cost benefits of economies of scale
  • Commercial cost-benefit propositions for space logistics service providers are untested, and the legal framework for logistics operations in space is not yet available

Pre-flight preparation at the DHL depot

Seizing the opportunity to supply cargo in space

There are many aspects to consider for space logistics to be successful and sustainable in the future. Carefully transporting the many different types of goods – provisions, fuel, equipment, and other materials – into space (upmass) and, in some cases, back down to Earth (downmass), such as waste and decommissioned equipment, will present diverse challenges.

Furthermore, limited space and weight capacity on rockets and shuttles will make it difficult to apply economies of scale to space transportation. Despite these constraints, rewards at this early stage can be significant. Since NASA awarded the space cargo delivery contracts in preparation for lunar colonization, several companies have proposed bigger outer space transport vehicles to hold more passengers and cargo.

We will have to push the boundaries of logistics to successfully and sustainably transport goods to places humanity has never gone before. Like space exploration itself, the development of satellite logistics and space transportation will be a journey into the unknown. Still, at its core, space logistics presents the same fundamental problems logistics providers solve here on Earth every day. It’s time for our industry to seize the opportunity to help the world establish a functioning outer space transport system to support sustained human presence on the Moon and set the stage for humankind to reach Mars and beyond.

Published: January 2021

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