SpaceX acquires former oil rigs to serve as floating Starship spaceports

by Thomas Burghardt

SpaceX has acquired two former oil drilling rigs to serve as these floating spaceports. Named Phobos and Deimos, after the two moons of Mars, they are currently undergoing modifications to support Starship launch operations.

SpaceX has long been hinting at future floating launch and landing sites for their Starship launch system. The super heavy lift launch vehicle will have a large blast danger area and pose noise concerns if launched frequently near populated areas. Therefore, sea launch platforms will play a key role in the launch cadence SpaceX plans to reach with Starship, including on-orbit refueling flights for deep space missions and transportation from one place to another on Earth.

Job postings by SpaceX have indicated that work on offshore launch platforms has begun in Brownsville, Texas, near their Starship manufacturing and launch facilities in Boca Chica.

Positions included crane operators, electricians, and offshore operations engineers, and several of the job listings specified that the position was part of the company’s Starship program. Job descriptions for these positions included responsibilities like “designing and building an operational offshore rocket launch facility” and required the “ability to work on an offshore platform in Brownsville, Texas.”

The Port of Brownsville is home to a handful of oil drilling rigs, as drilling operations are regularly conducted in the Gulf of Mexico. One rig in port was photographed by NASASpaceflight before and after a sign with the name Deimos was added in recent months.

Photographs of the same rig showed that it was previously named ENSCO 8500, owned and operated by offshore drilling company Ensco Rowan PLC.

Ensco Rowan merged and became Valaris PLC in 2019. The rig, then named Valaris 8500, was sold with another rig named Valaris 8501 to an undisclosed buyer in August 2020 when Valaris filed for bankruptcy. The two rigs sold for $3.5 million each, and as it turns out, the undisclosed buyer was SpaceX.

Both rigs have been officially renamed Deimos (formerly ENSCO/Valaris 8500) and Phobos (formerly ENSCO/Valaris 8501), and are now owned by Lone Star Mineral Development LLC.

Lone Star was incorporated in June 2020, just before the two rigs were purchased, and a principal of the company is Bret Johnsen, who is also the CFO and President of the Strategic Acquisitions Group at SpaceX.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had tweeted that “SpaceX is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon, & hypersonic travel around Earth” the same month that Lone Star was incorporated. It appears that Lone Star Mineral Development LLC is a subsidiary of SpaceX.

SpaceX’s job posting for crane operating positions in Brownsville mentioned Seatrax S90 cranes by name as one of the types an operator would be using. This same type of crane is the primary model used on the ENSCO 8500 and 8501 series rigs.

The Phobos rig was seen via satellite imagery in the Port of Galveston on January 13, 2020. Galveston is near Houston, Texas, to the northeast of Brownsville and Boca Chica.

On January 17, Phobos departed the Port of Galveston for the Port of Pascagoula in Mississippi. Phobos arrived in Pascagoula on January 22.

The idea for offshore launch and landing facilities was first presented officially by SpaceX in 2017, when Elon Musk revealed Starship’s “Earth to Earth” transportation plan.

Launching cargo and passengers on suborbital flights around Earth requires operating loud launch vehicles from locations accessible from major cities. Thus, the spaceports would be placed far enough offshore to mitigate noise from Starship’s Raptor engines as well as the sonic booms created by landing stages, both the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster.

Deimos in the Port of Brownsville – via Jack Beyer for NSF

Offshore launch facilities can also help alleviate congestion and noise levels from SpaceX’s land based Starship facilities at Boca Chica, Texas and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The primary driver of Starship’s Development is enabling missions to the moon and Mars, and those flights will require on-orbit refueling using a tanker variant of Starship in Low Earth Orbit. Delivering crew and/or cargo to the moon will require at least one refueling, and missions to Mars may require multiple refueling flights.

SpaceX also plans to eventually send multiple Starships to Mars during a single interplanetary transfer window. These flights will be in addition to perhaps hundreds of Starship missions to Earth orbit before carrying any people.

All of these factors result in a rapid Starship launch cadence which would be difficult to serve using only the two land based launch and landing sites. Phobos and Deimos will provide two more facilities for this purpose.

The two rigs will require extensive modification to support fueling, payload integration, launch, and landing operations. As this work continues, SpaceX teams at Boca Chica are continuing to test prototype Starship vehicles and construct the first Super Heavy boosters.

Based on the extensive work still needed to prepare the rigs, Phobos and Deimos will likely enter service after the initial orbital flights of the Starship launch system.

Phobos arrives – captured by Brady Kenniston for NSF

The first orbital Starship launch from Boca Chica could occur in late 2021, pending successful Starship and Super Heavy testing throughout the year.

Lead photo via Jack Beyer for NSF

Deimos Pad Shirt

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