The Pioneer Astronautics paper, “Drilling Operations to Support Human Mars Missions,” that we read on Day 22 describes an array of orbital and surface instruments looking for water. Since 1998, when the paper was written, a multitude of missions have explored Mars, and NASA has even adopted a “follow the water” approach to exploration. Some cursory research finds a variety of papers supporting the “Drilling Operations” assumption that liquid water is likely available in some areas within a kilometer of the surface. However, it doesn’t appear that we’ve really obtained widespread data about the likely depth of liquid water. NASA missions planned for the near term (e.g. Mars 2020) are still proceeding with a non-Starship architecture—bigger than their predecessors, but still orders of magnitude less than we can propose, and not sufficient to give us the answers we need about the location and depth of Martian aquifers.
It’s not clear whether a Starship can actually aerobrake into Mars orbit, although we discussed that possibility earlier. If it is possible, then delivering the orbital instruments proposed in “Drilling Operations” should be a near-term goal. In particular, a ground-penetrating radar is called for. That might be two satellites delivered by Starship, two Starships configured with the necessary equipment, or one Starship with the transmitter built-in and a separate receiver deployed after achieving Mars orbit. We’ll set that aside, other than to note that it’s needed early, so it’s an excellent candidate for the first or second set of precursor missions.
We also need a comprehensive suite of ground-based seismic instruments. We’ve already discussed automated setup of our solar power field; now we have another candidate for early cargo. Once the power field is operating, even before we start our “strip mining” demonstrations, we might consider the water-seeking operations described in the paper. Instead of the four landers called for in the paper, our tractors can deploy four (or more) ground instruments. And, instead of the lightweight “mole” on board NASA’s InSight lander, we can use something far more robust—after all, we’re talking about using hydraulic hammers for strip mining operations, so pounding a few sensor suites a couple meters into the ground shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Finally, we can assemble a series of mortar-based charges into a platform that will fit on our trailer and haul it to a safe distance before firing them.
Identifying subsurface water would be game-changing for follow-on operations, so much so that we should spend a few moments considering changes to our original design architecture. At the very least, Finity’s End needs to bring the seismic instruments we’ve just described. It would also be very useful to get Finity’s End on the ground and searching before Constellation lands. And, if it turns out Finity’s End is in a location without an underground aquifer, Constellation should land at a predetermined alternate site. Connie, too, needs at least minimal seismic instruments, even if we keep it as a MCCS, with life support. But, if we have to make a trade, we should seriously consider converting Constellation from a MCCS to a Mars Freighter, so we have the option of diverting to an alternate site. We won’t replan the architecture for now, but we’ll put this marker down for serious consideration.
If we’re able to identify subsurface water at our landing site, we also have a new challenge—the second launch window already has three ships—Nostromo, our ISRU plant; Serenity, hauling solar panels for Nostromo; and Heart of Gold, the first manned ship. If there’s any way to pull it off, we want that drillship, too, since that makes the whole strip-mining-for-ice/water unnecessary.
Given the changes to make Starship’s design more affordable, this seems like a plausible addition. We’d now have four ships in the second launch window. The biggest problem, in all likelihood, isn’t a Starship hull. Rather, it’s the amount of specialized design work we now need. Musk has already stated SpaceX is working on propellant plants, and there’s an obvious need for solar panels to power it. If we’re sending people, then we need a ship with life support and supplies. But, if we’re now going to expand into well drilling, that’s not exactly a SpaceX specialty. Like the container cranes earlier, the drillship seems a likely candidate to bring in outside help.
The type of specialized drilling we’re talking about isn’t the sort of work a water well driller is going to be familiar with. But, it’s well within the skillset of any major offshore oil well operator—much simpler, by comparison, than an earthbound drillship. We joked earlier about using “Deepwater Horizon” for the refinery ship. It’s unlikely anyone will reuse that one, even though it has a nice ring to it. However, in addition to bringing in outside expertise, this also seems like a good candidate for outside investment. In particular, a major company might well be interested in financially supporting the design work in exchange for naming rights. Companies pay tens of millions to name stadiums...why not tens of millions in investment for the drillship to be named “Maersk Viking” or “Exxon Ares”? That would only require SpaceX to provide the hull, outsourcing the rest. In particular, the outside company could also handle the logistics of training the drillers, possibly even selecting them.
Again referencing the Pioneer Astronautics paper, that plan called for a three-person drilling crew. Would it be better to find three oil well drillers with the right skillset to become astronauts for five years, or spend months to years training astronauts to drill a single, deep water well? “Drilling Operations” suggests the former, but assumed there would already be a large amount of infrastructure before they went. This will be a single well, completed in weeks to months. Our drillers will need a variety of other skillsets, so the decision doesn’t seem settled.
For now, let’s call the drillship “Deepwater Pioneer,” recognizing the Pioneer Astronautics work that might make it a reality. We’ll hold off on making it part of our reference architecture, for now. But that doesn’t mean we won’t advocate for it.