Unmanned Russian Rocket Burns Up Carrying Mexican Satellite

May 16, 2015

A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican telecommunications satellite experienced a malfunction minutes after liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and subsequently burned up over eastern Siberia, the Russian space agency says.

According to Russian news agencies, the rocket crashed about eight minutes after launch in the sparsely populated Chita region of Siberia.

“They have received coordinates of the region, to where the rocket may fall,” an unnamed source was quoted by The Siberian Times as saying. “The accident occurred during work of the third stage, which means the rocket was already rather high and during the falling it should explode in the atmosphere, and the fuel in it should burn up.”

The newspaper said “there were fears it could have contained several tonnes of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket propellant, when it came down.” But a statement issued by Roscosmos says that the failure happened at an altitude of 100 miles and that “the booster vehicle and the spacecraft completely burned up in atmosphere. As of now there are no reports of debris reaching the ground.”

If there were any casualties or damage, we would have known by now,” a spokesman for the local branch of the emergencies ministry told RIA Novosti.

But, according to Russia Today, there were reports that up to 10 tons of heptyl remained in the tank of the Proton’s third stage as it crashed.

As The New York Times notes: “The Proton rocket is the mainstay transporter for International Launch Services, a joint Russian-American satellite carrier business” and the M variant is “regarded as a workhorse but has encountered numerous problems in its decades of service. In 2013, a leadership shake-up at Roscosmos was prompted in part by the fourth failed launch of a Proton-M rocket within three years.”

Almost exactly a year ago, a Proton-M launch experienced a similar malfunction, crashing over Kazakhstan.

In an unrelated incident in April, the Russian space agency struggled unsuccessfully to save a Russian Progress M-27M that had been slated to resupply the International Space Station. Ground control lost contact with the unmanned vessel once it reached orbit and was unable to regain control needed to dock with the ISS.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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