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Though the MIT researchers are still analyzing the data, they believe that RFID tags are more efficient than bar codes but less precise. For instance, they have found that sometimes the RFID reader doesn’t pick up a signal. To overcome this, spaceships may need multiple readers that can pick up RFID signals coming from many different angles.

Simchi-Levi says the researchers are working to determine how many readers might be needed in a space shuttle. “Clearly, it will not be a low number,” he says. The answer to this question will influence NASA’s designs for future space vehicles. “We need to make NASA and their suppliers aware of this now…so that in five or ten years, [RFID] will be a useful technology,” says de Weck.

The group is now studying the most efficient ways to supply manned space missions, since future space supply chains will likely be very different from those of the Apollo Program, whose manned missions ran from 1969 to 1972. Apollo astronauts went to the Moon with everything they needed and came back with almost nothing.

In the future, NASA may establish “warehouses” of supplies in space, whether on the Moon, on Mars, or at the stable gravitational point about 85 percent of the way to the Moon. The MIT team is researching whether or not this strategy is worth pursuing. RFID technology could also be used to assess the quality of supplies stored in warehouses in such harsh environments, where extreme and rapid temperature changes are common.

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