A Russian rocket carrying three navigation satellites burst into flames and crashed on live TV moments after its launch, dealing another blow to the nation’s space prestige.
The failure follows a long string of launch mishaps that could tarnish Russia’s reputation and eventually cost it a share in the lucrative satellite launch market. It also hurt one of the Kremlin’s pet projects, the GLONASS satellite navigation system intended to serve as a Russian equivalent of the West’s GPS system.
The Proton-M booster suffered an emergency shutdown of its engines 17 seconds into the flight and crashed over a mile from the launch pad on the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Russian Space Agency said.
The explosion left a 200-yard crater and sent plumes of toxic rocket fuel into the air, prompting the city of Baikonur 50 miles away to order residents to close windows and stay home for several hours.
The ban was lifted a few hours later after the authorities said that most of the rocket fuel appeared to have burned in the crash and rain quickly dispelled the poisonous cloud.
Russia reported no casualties or damage, and Kazakhstan’s space agency said no toxic components were spotted in air or soil in the area. However, several Kazakh environmental activists demanded an end to Russian launches from the Soviet-built cosmodrome.
Russia pays Kazakhstan $115 million a year for Baikonur under a deal that runs until 2050. Russia also spends $160m per year operating the complex, which is used for all its manned launches and most commercial satellite launches.
The ex-Soviet neighbours have argued over the cosmodrome in the past. Kazakhstan once suspended Russian launches after a failed Proton launch that spilled toxic fuel, and recently sought to put limits on the number of the heavylift Russian rockets.
The Proton booster has been the main cash cow of the Russian space programme, used for putting heavy communications satellites into high orbits.
It also has served as the launch vehicle for GLONASS navigation satellites. Russia has boasted about the system but has struggled to make it fully operational due to a short lifespan of its satellites and launch failures.
In December 2010, a Proton failure led to the loss of three navigation satellites. The mishap was caused by extra fuel loaded into the booster because of human error. In August 2011, a state-of-the art telecommunications satellite was lost when a Proton upper stage suffered a malfunction.
Another failed Proton launch in August 2012 led to the loss of two communications satellites.
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