Two important things of note:
- This list is entirely personal opinion.
- This list is not directly related to best jump range. While only reasonably high jump range ships are considered, this list is about actual exploration, not about how to honk-and-jump your way to an A-rated Anaconda. You can go to the wiki and sort by jump range if that's what you're looking for.
Without further delay, here's my list:
#5 - The Asp Explorer
Once the obvious darling of all exploration ships, I don't think the AspX has aged well. It's not bad. Not even a little. The problem with the AspX is that it has fallen victim to power creep in a big way. It's not that the AspX has gotten any worse, it's just that every other exploration ship all around it has seen better benefits with the changes and additions in each successive patch. That said, it's still an outstanding choice. It also fills a nice niche as a long-range miner that nothing else (ok, not really nothing else...) on this list does very well, and its jump range seems to take less of a hit per ton of cargo than any of the others. (But, again, jump range isn't the main focus of this list.)
#4 - The Diamondback Explorer
I'm putting the DBX on this list, and in this spot, for three reasons. First, it has Explorer in the name. Second, it is arguably the best ship in the game for farming Guardian sites, which are, of course, far enough away that you ARE going to want to use an exploration ship to do it. Mounting a Class 3 beam laser, point defense, and a SRV is all you need to very easily tackle all the Guardian content in the game, and the DBX is the cheapest ship to haul all 3 of these the 1,100ly+ journey to the sites. If you're not into Guardian tech, you can also stick a Class 3 Frag Cannon with Drag Munitions and 2 Class 2 Mine Launchers on this thing, and you have a ship that can make pursuit by hostiles an extremely painful experience. Oh and third, because it just looks so damn cool! I know people are heavily split on the appearance, but for my money, it is very nice to have a ship that has the whole "attack helicopter" aesthetic, even if it makes absolutely zero sense in space.
#3 - The Krait MkII
Before anyone asks, no, the Phantom isn't on this list. I know that's going to raise some eyebrows, but there is one very specific reason I'm picking the MkII for this list: the SLF hangar. Remember, this is an exploration list, not a jump range list. A SLF gives you the freedom to go screaming through a canyon at 570m/s without worrying if the 20 million credits of exploration data you're carting around is safe. This alone makes the MkII a better exploration ship for me, as canyon racing is one of the things I love to do most when I need a break from the scanning monotony. However, add to this the fact that you can pack a Class 6 SRV bay AND a Class 6 SLF bay, and still have room for both a 5A scoop and a Class 5 Guardian FSD booster, and you have a ship very uniquely suited to spending MONTHS out in the black. Ran your SRV off a cliff? No worries! Smashed your Condor into a surprise spire? Give it another 17 tries! Besides this, the Krait MkII also makes a decent long distance miner. I'd argue the AspX is still better for this, but you absolutely CAN rig a Krait with a Class 2 mining laser and the other Class 2 mining implement of your choice and make a very good long-distance miner.
#2 - The Anaconda
You had to know this was going to be on the list, but how many of you expected it would be #2 on a list without the Phantom? The reasons why you'd pick the Anaconda as an exploration ship are pretty obvious, but I want to highlight one particular thing, because it's going to make my #1 pick make a lot more sense. The Anaconda has a hull mass of 400t and a Class 6 FSD. The Type-9 has a hull mass of 900t and a Class 6 FSD. The Federal Dropship has a hull mass of 580t and a class 5 FSD.
One of these things is not like the others.
If you're looking for what makes a great exploration ship, the answer is in the slot sizes, and not just the core internals! This is the Anaconda's secret sauce - specifically, that someone at FDev got a little tipsy on the sauce one night and accidentally hit a 6 on their keyboard instead of the 5 that was clearly, obviously meant to be. The Anaconda, based on its hull mas, has absolutely no right to have a Class 6 FSD, and yet it is this very feature that allows it to carry hundreds upon hundreds of tons of additional components without batting an eyelash in the range department. It is also this feature that's the main reason why I'm putting the Anaconda in the #2 spot, rather than top of the list. By having a Class 6 FSD with only a Class 5 fuel tank, the Anaconda uses a larger portion of its fuel with each and every jump than anything else on this list. This, in effect, forces you to either use a Class 7 fuel scoop, or else to slow down while scooping, and I hate when a ship forces me to pick between two things I don't want. Now, yes, you can totally just throw in an extra fuel tank. It's not like the ship itself is going to even notice if you give it another 32t of fuel. But then by the time you use up a class 7 and a class 5 slot to compensate for this weakness, the Anaconda starts to lose some of that trademark flexibility it's otherwise known for. Add in the fact that you're looking at a very expensive rebuy on a ship with underrated thrusters and a very large landing footprint, and you have an exploration vessel which has to just give up on landing on certain planets entirely.
For these reasons, my #1 ship is literally just the opposite of the Anaconda in almost every way.
#1 - The Dolphin
No, that's not a typo. The Dolphin is my absolute favorite exploration ship in all of Elite, and for none of the reasons you'd probably expect. First of all, you know that guy who got a little tipsy designing the Anaconda? Well he must've just broken up with his girlfriend and been on an all-day bender when he designed the Dolphin, because this ship makes absolutely no sense, and I love it.
First, the Dolphin is the only ship (besides the Hauler, which I am not going to discuss in detail now...) that gets more than 50ly out of a less-than-Class-5 FSD. Now, yes, this is not a list about jump range, and my own Dolphin, the Gnosis (which I named after a hovercraft from The Matrix before I even knew there was already a "Gnosis" in Elite, and now refuse to rename) does not have the best possible jump range you can squeeze out of this fish. Or mammal. Or whatever it is. The key thing here isn't the range, it's the FSD class. Being a class 4 FSD means the Dolphin uses less fuel per jump, but goes just as far. At first, this seems meaningless since it only has a 16t fuel tank, but it also has a Class 5 optional internal, which no other ship with a Class 4 FSD has. This means the Dolphin is uniquely capable of mounting a fuel scoop that can scoop much faster than any small pad ship should, and yet still uses far less fuel than a DBX or other small ship. In combination, you spend more time jumping and less time scooping in a Dolphin than anything else on this entire list.
And it gets better. Like I said, the designer was very, very drunk when he made this ship, and probably also high. He may have given it a Class 4 FSD, but he also gave it Class 5 thrusters. That's right, this thing has the same thrusters as a Vulture - with 90t less weight! The reason why I didn't put the Krait MkII at the top of this list, despite the fact that the Dolphin doesn't have a SLF hangar, is this right here. The Dolphin can both outrun and outturn any SLF in the game, and fully geared its rebuy is still under one million credits. And it can do all this while still hauling a pair of SRVs and giving you a view so unobstructed that there literally is no ceiling.
So there you have it. My personal, totally-just-my-opinion, list of the best exploration ships in Elite. Even though I keep saying this list is opinion, please feel free to chime in, even if you totally disagree. I'm not trying to stifle criticism with that line, I just want to make it clear that this list is based largely on both personal preference and intangibles, i.e. things not readily apparent when you just look at the ships' stats.