Moments after launch on Tuesday, an unmanned Russian Proton rocket veered off course and slammed into the ground, igniting 600 tons of fuel, producing a dramatic fireball on the Kazakhstan Steppes. Initial reports suggest that no one was hurt, but three GLONASS navigation satellites were lost in the inferno.
The Proton-M rocket was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 6:38 a.m. Moscow Time (on July 1, 10:38 p.m. EDT) but seconds into the launch live video showed the rocket losing control. When the booster tried to compensate for what appears to be an engine failure, the 19-story tall Proton-M barrel-rolled and veered in the other direction causing it to break apart before bursting into flames and hitting the ground. The flight lasted around 30 seconds.
As noted by SpaceflightNow.com, Russian rockets do not carry self-destruct explosives like their Western counterparts, so when Proton-M boosters lose control, their doom is only complete when they crash. Therefore, the live-streaming video captured the full drama of a rocket malfunction.
Of immediate concern is the huge quantity of toxic unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel that now contaminates the Kazakh landscape. RT.com reports that the emergency ministry of Kazakhstan “is considering evacuating the surrounding areas as toxic fuel which leaked from the rocket could pose a threat to the surrounding area.”
RussianSpaceWeb.com reports that the explosion occurred near another Proton-M launch complex at Site 200, although there doesn’t appear to be any structural damage.
The payload of three satellites were intended to be added to the GLONASS navigation network that consists of an armada of satellites orbiting 12,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. GLONASS is the Russian equivalent to the U.S.-managed GPS network.
This most recent launch failure comes three years after another Proton rocket failed to reach orbit after a botched fuel calculation. This is the fifth Proton launch this year and the 388th since 1965.
Image: The Proton-M rocket disintegrates as it nosedives before exploding (top). The resulting fireball on impact (inset). Credit: Tsenki TV