MOSCOW – An unmanned Russian Proton-M rocket carrying three satellites exploded and crashed early Tuesday seconds after launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The unfolding drama was broadcast live on Rossiya 24, the Russian news television channel.
“What a beautiful sight!” the news announcer said as the rocket lifted off from the launching pad. But seconds later he gasped when the rocket suddenly turned sideways and caught fire. “But something is going wrong! Something is wrong! It seems to be a catastrophe!”
The rocket hit the ground in a burst of fire and black smoke not far from the launching pad. No casualties were reported in the newscast.
The rocket carried three satellites of the Glonass system, Russia’s equivalent to the global positioning system, or GPS. It was equipped with a DM-3 booster being used for the first time since December 2010, when a Proton-M rocket also failed to launch three Glonass satellites into space. Those satellites then fell into the Pacific.
Proton-M rockets are produced at Khrunichev Space Center in Moscow.
The crash probably was unrelated to the DM-3 booster, said Sergei Gromov, the leading engineer of Space Corp. Energia.
“DM-3 was to be switched into motion only about an hour after the launch so obviously it cannot be the problem,” Gromov said in an interview with The Times.
“Accidents do happen in [the Russian space program] but we shouldn’t see a tendency here either as there have been several successful launches of Proton-M recently.”
Gromov said that the highly toxic liquid rocket fuel called heptil in Russian can seriously contaminate the launching area and harm the cosmodrome equipment.
Tuesday’s disaster came as the Russian Investigative Committee is reportedly looking into the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars associated with agencies involved in Glonass construction.