First contact: Using offshore technology to find life on Mars

Umar Ali 2 September 2019 (Last Updated August 29th, 2019 11:31)

The offshore industry has learnt some unique lessons from working in some of the most challenging and inhospitable environments in the world. A programme run by NASA aims to use these lessons to look for life on Mars, using a plasma drill developed by electronics company Zaptec for the offshore industry. Umar Ali spoke with co-founder and chair of the Mars Institute Pascal Lee to find out more.

First contact: Using offshore technology to find life on Mars
The plasma drill is designed for Martian exploration, but could make offshore exploration more efficient. Credit: Mars Institute.

The offshore oil and gas industry and space exploration have very different goals, but the conditions faced are similar.

Much like operations in the inhospitable reaches of space, offshore oil and gas involves operating in temperatures and pressure differentials that present unique challenges to exploration. The surface temperature of Mars is -63°C and its surface pressure is 610 Pascal, less than 1% of Earth’s surface pressure.

Mars Institute co-founder and chair Pascal Lee describes the challenges presented by the surface of Mars: “The surface is a very harsh place, there’s high radiation coming from space, intense ultraviolet light from the sun and the surface chemistry is pretty oxidising so it’s very hostile to most forms of life on Earth. So it’s maybe not too surprising that there’s no signs of life at the surface!”

With these shared challenges and experiences, the Mars Institute is working with electronics company Zaptec to develop a drill for space exploration, looking for life rather than hydrocarbons.

The plasma drill

The Mars Institute’s investment in drilling to search for life stems from lessons learned in the energy sector.

“The story we think could be completely different is underground, because if you go underground on Mars several good things happen,” says Lee. “You’re protected from harmful space radiation, and temperatures rise like they do in mines – the deeper you go into a mine the warmer it gets, and the same thing happens on Mars.

“This means temperatures could rise from the frigid cold of the surface, where averages temperatures are around -63°C, to the point where you’re above freezing a few kilometres down. So water, if it’s present, would be liquid. That’s very good news because at least on Earth, life needs liquid water and everywhere with clean liquid water has life in it”.

However, the surface of Mars presents challenges that cannot be solved by conventional drilling. “The main problem is the more stuff you have to take from Earth to do this, the more expensive it gets. It costs approximately $1m per kilo – $10m per kilo on Mars! So you want to be very efficient with what you take to Mars, and if you need to access the deep underground you want to come up with a drilling strategy that is as efficient and cheap as possible.”

Another problem with drilling techniques used in offshore oil and gas exploration is the need to flush cuttings. “This usually means you inject water into the drill hole to push out the mud and dirt you’ve just drilled through,” explains Lee. “On Mars you can’t use water to do this flushing, it’s so cold that if you tried the water would just freeze.”

The characteristics of Mars’ surface and the logistics of space travel mean drilling operations would need a system without heavy equipment or the need for water. The plasma drill attempts to solve this dilemma by reducing an oil drill to its most minimal component- the drill bit.

“Plasma drilling involves sending a drill bit that breaks rock by vaporising it rather than crushing it,” says Lee. “It creates a huge electrical voltage at the tip of the bit, breaking the rock by lightning strike. And instead of using water to flush the rock out you use CO₂, the most readily available gas on Mars, which is injected into the surface.”

The financial frontier

While this technology is primarily being developed to search for life on Mars, the plasma drill also shows benefits for drilling on Earth.

“In fact, this thing would have to be demonstrated on Earth before being sent to Mars at great cost- even though we’ve reduced the mass, it would be a very expensive project to do on Mars,” says Lee.

By reducing the drill down to the bit, the plasma drill has the potential to save offshore energy companies a lot of money and resources in transporting and using heavy equipment. The plasma drill is energy-efficient, only requiring power that can be supplied from the surface relatively easily. Using electrical voltages to vaporise rock is also faster and more effective than conventional drills, which expend a lot of energy to crush rock and leave more cuttings.

Lee is optimistic about the development of the plasma drill but also has concerns that the project may struggle with funding and stakeholder interest. Zaptec, the company providing the technology for the drill, primarily works on small-scale electrical transformers and does not have a significant vested interest in space travel.

“In commercial sectors, things are usually more short-term – unless you have a product that will make a difference in your position in the market in the next five or ten years it’s usually not going to be pushed hard,” he says.

“A lot of companies use roughly the same technologies in their business because if you’re making money with something you have, why risk something new and different?

“In my opinion, this technology needs to be pushed,” Lee concludes. “Pioneering anything, having any vision for something, means that you are doing it in the face of doubt and a lack of immediacy from others. But that’s what vision is, it’s not physical – everyone thinks they’re a visionary but in fact, they’re relatively conservative with the way they approach things and do things.”