Smoke From SpaceX’s Mars Rocket Picked Up By Radar – Musk Shares Key Details For Future

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Earlier today, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) flight-tested a fourth prototype for the Starship interplanetary transport system from Boca Chica, Texas. This was the first Starship prototype that failed to successfully executive its landing sequence, as an anomaly soon after the vehicle attempted to reignite its Raptor engine resulted in the prototype disintegrating mid-air. The outcome of the failure was so significant that the U.S. National Weather Service for the Brownsville and Rio Grande Valley in Texas was able to detect a signature of the prototype's smoke through its weather monitoring radar.

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According to details that the weather service shared on its Facebook page, the aftermath of the prototype mishap was caught by its weather radar. When a commentator speculated on whether it was possible for the radar to catch the test roughly 10 miles away from SpaceX's test facilities, the agency clarified that it was the smoke that the radar was able to detect and not the launch itself.

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Weather radars use energy pulses to detect the motion of air particles and determine whether heavy storms are in the area. This enables them to discover the kind of precipitation that is present in the area, with the particles that it can detect ranging from rain to snow.

Image: U.S. National Weather Service Brownsville/Rio Grande Valley Texas

Looking at the timestamp from the radar footage, it's clear that the explosion itself which took place earlier was not caught by it. The Starship prototype's final fate as it reignited its Raptor engines is unclear for the time being, as it is possible that SpaceX itself detonated the vehicle after it stopped feeding video feed. However, while some residents have reported a loud "boom" other video feeds fail to catch this noise indicative of an in-flight abort.

The abort would also be contingent on the loss of telemetry from the prototype, and so far, the company has not shared any details about its latest test apart from Tweets by its chief Mr. Elon Musk.

The executive took to Twitter soon after the test, where he started off by explaining that one of the vehicle's engines did not have sufficient fuel and oxidizer pressure during ascent. The only other details for the test that he shared were about SpaceX's intent to analyze the debris - most of which landed on the launchpad - to determine why the anomaly which took place after its engines reignited for the landing burn occurred.

Keen to move forward, Mr. Musk also shared several crucial details for SpaceX's near-term Starship plans. The SN11 prototype is for the launch system's upper or first stage, which is the part that will house either cargo or crew once Starship is operational.

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He also confirmed that the next prototype that SpaceX will test will be the SN15 prototype, as the company chooses to skip ahead from the current generation of its test articles. According to him, the new test article will have "hundreds" of design upgrades for its software, structure and engine. These, he believes might be sufficient to cover the fault behind today's landing miss, and if they don't, then SpaceX will make the required changes to SN15 before it attempts another launch.

An image of the 230 feet Starship BN1 booster shared by Musk earlier this month. This is a verification variant and will not take flight. Image: Elon Musk/Twitter

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After SN15, the next wave of design changes will take place on the third-generation of the Starship prototypes starting from SN20. SpaceX seems to have gathered sufficient data from its flight tests so far to confidently skip ahead to SN15, and this decision also highlights the urgency with which the company is pursuing its iterative design strategy - a strategy that resulted in it disrupting the aerospace industry through the Falcon 9 lineup.

Musk outlined that with SN20, SpaceX will equip its test vehicles with a heatshield that it hopes will one day withstand Martian entry and descent. Additionally, the new vehicles will also be capable of reaching orbit and will be tested to withstand reentry speeds of up to Mach 25. Interestingly, however, Musk also cautioned that SpaceX is unlikely to land these prototypes in one piece anytime soon; and today's test should have provided it with a rough estimate of what to expect should the future tests go awry.

Crucially, and in perhaps the most important reveal of the day, the executive also stated that SpaceX hopes to ship its first flight-ready Starship booster prototype to its launch pad by the end of this month. Continuing in his usual optimistic tone, Musk also shared the possibility that SpaceX's first booster prototype might be ready for orbit as well.

SpaceX plans to reach orbit with Starship this year, as it races to meet the right orbital timeframe for launching a Mars mission by 2024. Musk also believes that unless the rate of innovation at his company grows exponentially, it is unlikely that SpaceX will reach Mars during his lifetime - with the Hawthorne, California-based launch service provider's plans for its Starlink internet constellation also depending on a successful Starship launch cadence.