Reader Tip & Pic Of SpaceX Phobos — 2nd SpaceX Oil Rig
Published on January 25th, 2021 | by Jennifer Sensiba
January 25th, 2021 by Jennifer Sensiba
In previous articles, we covered that SpaceX bought two offshore oil rigs, with plans to modify them into floating launch and landing facilities for Starship. We then covered the rigs’ locations, history, and more. When I wrote that last one, we knew that ENSCO 8500 (aka Deimos) was in the Brownsville Harbor, but we weren’t 100% sure where 8501/Phobos was. We knew that it had been in Galveston until recently, but had likely moved on.
Thanks to our readers, we now know where Phobos is.
A reader, who wants to remain anonymous, spotted the rig docked in Pascagoula, Mississippi. It’s currently parked at VT Halter Marine’s facility, at approximately 30.341292,-88.511511. To verify the rig’s identity, one of the readers shared a closer photo of the rig, showing its identity.
What we don’t know is whether the rig is just passing through or if it’s there to be worked on further.
Why Park It There?
VT Halter is definitely capable of making the modifications SpaceX would need made to the rig. It is a subsidiary to an engineering firm, and specializes in shipbuilding. Its past clients include private companies, oil firms, and the Department of Defense. Notable projects include the US Coast Guard’s upcoming Polar Security Cutter, Navy Auxiliary Personnel Lighters, and huge natural gas ships.
Google Maps has 3D views of the facility, and it shows that its dock in Pascagoula is frequented by oil rigs. It doesn’t advertise building rigs, but one reader familiar with the facility tells us that ships and rigs frequently stop in for work, and sometimes just dock to be resupplied.
Which brings us to the second possibility here. Phobos could be on its way to another location, perhaps Florida, and is only stopping for a break in Mississippi. Also, it’s possible that the rig may have some of its work done in Mississippi before moving on to Florida or Boca Chica to have the rest of the work done.
How Are These Rigs Moved?
As we pointed out in a previous article, the ENSCO 8500 series rigs are semi-submersible. They don’t sit atop a tower or long legs, instead floating atop large pontoons. As you can see in the picture our reader provided above, Phobos has spent a lot of time sitting deeper in the water. The rig can be raised or lowered by pumping water in or out of the pontoons, and rigs of this type generally are raised to a higher position for moving.
When moving things along the coast, it’s not necessary to go out into the deep waters of the gulf, with the accompanying waves and storms. If you zoom in on the coast in Google Maps or Google Earth, you can see the Intracoastal Waterway. The Waterway is a series of artificial canals, inlets, and bays all tied together, providing a safer route all the way from Boston, Massachusetts to Brownsville, Texas. Phobos was likely pulled along by tugs along this waterway from Galveston to Mississippi, and will likely take the waterway from there to Brownsville or Florida.
Rigs sometimes move around under their own power, but that’s slow and complicated in most cases. In this case, we know that Phobos was pulled into dock by two tugboats, and likely was moved along the ICW by the same tugs.
Once in place, semi-submersibles are “sunk” part way by pumping water back into the pontoons. The benefit to sitting deeper in the water is that the bulk of the pontoons are down below the waves, which allows the rig to be a lot more stable. To stay in one spot, cables are generally used to tie the rig down to anchors placed on the sea floor, but they can also stay put using thrusters or a combination of anchoring and thrusters.
That’s still what we know very little about. It’s possible that the work could be performed in Mississippi to transform it from an oil rig into a launch/landing facility for rockets, or part/all of this work could happen elsewhere.
The most likely next places it will go are either Brownsville or Florida. Work on 8500/Deimos is already under way in Brownsville, but SpaceX has facilities near the coast in Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral. Previous work on Starship in Florida didn’t go well and was scrapped, but it’s possible that the company would want a second facility to work on floating spaceports.
Given SpaceX’ plans to launch and land Starships at many locations around the world, it is eventually going to need many more floating spaceports. Earth-to-Earth missions for transportation will likely take people from large cities to other large cities, and large cities simply don’t have the real estate to build safe launch facilities where people won’t be bothered by the noise and bright light of launches. The only viable alternative in most cases would be to put a floating facility out on the ocean nearby or on a large lake if one exists nearby.
This is exactly what SpaceX shows in an earlier version of a Starship promotional video. Passengers first board a boat to go out to a floating launch and landing facility, located a good distance away from New York City. Next, they launch into space and can get to most other cities in under 30 minutes.
There are only seven of the ENSCO 8500 series in existence, with at least half still being used for oil production. To accomplish its goals, the company will need hundreds or thousands of the floating facilities. Using existing floating rigs is likely SpaceX’s way of getting into a new industry without the learning curve of building floating spaceports from scratch.
SpaceX may get into building its floating facilities in-house, but it may be easier to work with existing shipbuilders to go into mass production. We won’t know for a while, and SpaceX may still be deciding how to best approach future production.
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