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Why space is the place for supply chain haste

.If you want to understand global logistics, you need the view from low-earth orbit

This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Looking at boats from space, fueling launch contracts with margaritas, and parsing the lunar lander legal battle.

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One of the biggest stories in the global economy right now are the hinks and hiccups in the vast infrastructure humans use to convey goods around the planet. Fittingly enough, the best way to understand logistical activity stretching around the globe is from space.

The pandemic recession and recovery has seen a major shipping crunch, with public health restrictions slowing activity in ports and at factories, even as fluctuations in the demand for durable goods, first plunging then soaring, have cracked through the economy with a bullwhip effect. Delays have been exacerbated by just-in-time strategies that keep inventories and costs low, but leave retailers and manufacturers with empty hands if there’s a significant interruption.

“The real problem here is uncertainty,” Fordham professor Matthew Hockenberry wrote in a Twitter thread laying out why things have become so congested. “After all, logistical time isn’t fast, or slow. It doesn’t actually matter how long a container ship takes, or how much product is on hand. What matters is that you can predict it. Logistical time is regular, routinized.”

One source of uncertainty for the people charged with predicting supply chain outcomes has been a lack of data. Shipping companies and ports tend to rely on human data entry, which is prone to errors and delay, according to Gavin Webber, the chief product officer at the firm Gravity Supply Chain. His company uses data from Spire Global, a satellite data company that uses orbital sensors to gather data about activity on Earth, including collecting the location of ships, which are broadcast by onboard radio transponders. The company, which went public in August after being acquired by a special-purpose acquisition company, also agreed to purchase a competing maritime surveillance company, exactEarth, in a $161 million cash-and-stock deal earlier this month.

“Spire’s data essentially allows our users to capture visibility of a more accurate time of arrival than what else is provided by other means,” Webber says.

During normal times, that data helps companies make smarter decisions about ordering, and can help them avoid paying fees for storing containers of goods at ports. Once ships are back in the open ocean, Spire can help them in other ways. The shipping industry is interested in developing better risk-based models of how weather affects marine supply chains, and Webber says Spire’s satellites, which also gather weather data, could help generate a more accurate ETA for his customers, which range from logistics firms to wholesalers and manufacturers.

Now, though, it is helping them document their frustration. The carrier may tell them that the ship with their container on it has arrived at, say, the Port of Los Angeles. Spire can tell them that it is 30 miles off the coast and has been waiting to berth; a sample of the company’s data from the Port of Los Angeles found an average wait time of six days for container ships there last week.

Webber says he watched over the summer as the buildup at Los Angeles, the busiest port in the US, spread up and down the coast, with some ships heading to Mexico, where their goods can be trucked to the US, and others stacking up at northern ports like Oakland or Seattle.

The problems we’re seeing in the supply chain are unlikely to go away until at least midway through next year, Webber says, but his firm is already working on new ways to incorporate space data into their platform. “Utopia really is the ability to tell our users at any given moment where a container or goods are, and the expected arrival date at their final location,” he explains.

What will that take? With ports now the weak link in the chain of data, it might mean putting connected sensors into containers themselves. That’s too pricey at the moment, according to Webber, but if ports cannot figure out how to do this themselves (and they may not have the resources or even the incentive), third-party providers like Spire might be able to. The company just announced a partnership with Myriota, the internet of things company, to monitor its various sensors from space.

“If that price point came down, it would be undeniable,” Webber says. “From a data perspective? Jackpot.”

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Imagery interlude

Planet CEO Will Marshall tweeted out a photo of private space history: The first launch contract signed by his satellite Earth observation company and Spaceflight, the small satellite launch broker, signed 10 years ago that day. Marshall and Spaceflight co-founder Jason Andrews signed the deal at a Mexican restaurant because Planet, then called Cosmogia, didn’t have an office.

In September 2011, for context, SpaceX had only flown the Falcon 9 twice and had yet to actually reach the International Space Station, and venture capitalists were hardly touching space start-ups. Marshall and his co-founders put down the deposit out of their own pockets. Things have progressed: Later this year, Planet will go public, with co-founders Marshall and Robbie Schingler in the C-suite. Their other co-founder, Chris Bozshuisen, left the company to become a venture investor; he’s scheduled to fly to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s October New Shepard launch.

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Space debris

The US should use military satellites to spot forest fires. Earth-observing spacecraft can spot forest fires in remote areas, but in general, private satellites aren’t pointing the right sensors at the right place all the time. The US military, however, has space-based infrared sensors watching the whole planet all the time. Their job is looking for missiles, but the state of California and other advocates say that sharing wildfire data could save lives and billions of dollars—if the military’s penchant for secrecy and bureaucracy gets out of the way.

Explaining the argument over flight readiness reviews. What’s holding up the US plan to return astronauts to the moon? Most glaringly, a lawsuit over who gets to build a vehicle that will deposit the next humans on lunar soil. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is suing NASA in an effort to force its way into the job won by SpaceX. Blue is arguing that NASA is risking astronaut safety because it isn’t doing enough flight readiness reviews. Your correspondent dove into redacted government documents and legal filings to suss out what’s going on.

NASA was not impressed with Blue Origin’s lunar lander bid. In another development from the same story, the Verge’s Joey Roulette obtained the document outlining NASA’s side of the Blue Origin contract dispute. The agency says that Blue Origin didn’t submit their best bid despite instructions to do so, gambling that NASA would either accept the pricey offer or negotiate. Instead, the agency exercised its right to choose another contractor.

The world’s largest satellite factory. Terran Orbital, a firm that makes satellites and their components, announced plans to build a $300-million, 660,000-square-foot factory near Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which company officials say will be the world’s largest.

Space Force’s favorite rockets. The US Space Force split $75 million in funding to four rocket-makers working to develop the next generation of launch technology: United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Blue Origin.

What future telescopes will tell us. As the James Webb Space Telescope gets teed up for a launch expected in December, check out this nice Vox feature about what it and its successors will teach us about the universe.

China loses a classified satellite. China had a 50/50 day at the range, launching a small imaging satellite but seeing a classified government spacecraft fail on orbit.

your pal,

Tim

This was issue 109 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your sneaky space data stories, pictures of your favorite space hardware factories, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

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