An unmanned Russian rocket carrying three navigation satellites has crashed to earth. A state-run television station captured the moment. Within seconds of blast off it was clear the Proton-M booster rocket was in trouble as it veered off course.
It had taken off from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan. Reportedly all the staff were in bunkers and there were no injuries as the rocket lost control and headed back to earth.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said the accident had been caused by the emergency switch-off of the rocket’s engines 17 seconds into the flight.
On board was around 170 tonnes of heptyl, a highly toxic propellant, which exploded on impact as it crashed and burned in a ball of fire.
The satellites were meant for Russia’s troubled Glonass satellite navigation system, which is the country’s answer to the US GPS system.
Quoting a Kazakh security source, Russian news agency Interfax said Kazakh emergency authorities had considered evacuating nearby towns in the sparsely populated area because of the potential health threat from the burning propellant.
Kazakhstan’s government was holding an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the situation, a government spokesman said.
The estimated loss from the three satellites was the equivalent of about 154 million euros, Rossiya-24 reported. Russia plans to spend more than 300 billion roubles (6.97 billion euros) by 2020 on the Glonass GPS system.
Glosnass, first conceived by the Soviet Union more than 40 years ago, has been plagued by previous failed launches, including one in 2010 in which three satellites were also lost, and by suspicions of corruption and embezzlement. Its chief designer was dismissed last year during a fraud investigation.
The Proton rocket, known then as the UR-500, made its first test flights in the mid-1960s. It was originally designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead targeting the Soviet Union’s Cold War foe the United States, but it was never deployed as a nuclear weapon.
Several crashes of Proton rockets accompanied by spills of heptyl have led to temporary strains in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Russia is increasing spending on space and plans to send a probe to the moon in 2015, but the pioneering programme that put the first man in space in 1961 has been plagued in recent years by setbacks, including botched satellite launches and a failed attempt to send a probe to a moon of Mars.