A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying three Glonass navigation satellites valued at billions of rubles crashed soon after take-off from a base in Kazakhstan.
The unmanned rocket fell 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) from the Baikonur launch site after an emergency shutdown of its engines 17 seconds into today’s flight, the space agency Roscosmos said on its website. A cloud of poisonous gas from spilled rocket fuel enveloped the crash site, Interfax said.
Russia has squandered billions of rubles as incidents in the space industry resulted in 10 lost satellites and seven failed launches during a period of 18 months, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in August. The disaster is the latest mishap for the country, which controls 40 percent of the market for space launches and plans to allocate 2.1 trillion rubles ($64 billion) on its space program in 2013-2020.
The rocket veered off course and broke apart in flames, according to footage aired on state television channel Rossiya 24. The failure of the rocket’s first-stage engine was a possible cause of the incident, the state-run news service RIA Novosti reported, citing the Kazakh Emergency Ministry.
Proton-M was carrying tons of rocket fuel, RIA cited the Kazakh space agency as saying. Toxic propellant substances burned up in the atmosphere, turning into nitric oxide and mixing with precipitation in the area, Anna Vedischeva, a spokeswoman for the head of Roscosmos, said by phone, adding that there’s no threat to people from the fallout.
The cost of the failed rocket, satellites and the launch is estimated at about 4.4 billion rubles, according to Interfax.
Russia is trying to challenge U.S. dominance in space-based navigation systems. The country has spent at least $3.3 billion in the last decade to develop its Glonass system with 24 satellites. It’s an alternative to GPS which was first developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and then spread to civilian applications such as mobile phones and transport monitoring.
The Russian space agency chief, Vladimir Popovkin, was appointed in 2011 after the firing of his predecessor because a Proton-M rocket failed to deliver three navigation satellites into orbit. Within four months of Popovkin’s appointment, Russia lost its most powerful telecommunications satellite, Express-AM4, after another faulty Proton-M launch.
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