A cloud of highly toxic orange fumes wafted toward the city of Baikonur in Kazakhstan on Tuesday after an unmanned Russian rocket veered off course and crashed … The Proton-M rocket rose just above its launch tower during the early morning launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, wobbled and then tipped over into the desert in a ball of fire.
There were no reported injuries at the site of the accident, an area that Russia rents for rocket launches. But the short round trip, instead of a journey to space, made for one of the most dramatic rocket disasters in Russia's space program in recent years.
"According to the preliminary estimates from the Russian side, there is no destruction and there are no casualties," the Kazakh space agency, KazCosmos, said in a statement, according to Reuters.
By midday in Kazakhstan, however, photographs posted online showed an ominous cloud stretching over buildings near the launch pad.
The city of Baikonur, population 70,000, and not far from the launch site, posted fliers asking residents to take shelter in their homes.
"Because of the failed launch at the cosmodrome a cloud of unburned fuel is moving near Baikonur," an online posting read. "We recommend that you don't leave home, shut your windows and doors tightly and don't use air conditioning."
The rocket carried three satellites for Russia's Glonas navigation system, an analogue to the United States Global Positioning System that Russia has been trying to build for years.
In video of the crash broadcast by Rossiya 24, a Russian state television channel, the satellites appeared to break apart from the nose cone as the rocket tumbled to earth. The station estimated their value at $200 million.
In the live broadcast, the announcer notes as the rocket leans over and flies horizontally, "It seems something is not right."
The announcer goes on to repeat, "something is not right" and adds that "the rocket is now heading toward the ground and breaking apart in the air. And an explosion."
The crash was also a setback for the Proton rocket, a workaday booster for the Russian space program used for commercial and military payloads.
For Western commercial clients of Russia's space launch services and for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which rents seats on a different model of Russian rocket to send astronauts into orbit, the Proton-M's short flight on Tuesday was sure to raise questions about safety in the Russian program.
It was the fourth Proton failure in three years. Rockets have crashed from engineering slip-ups, from manufacturing glitches and command and control failures, their stages and valuable payloads tumbling back to Earth in useless and embarrassing parabolas.
The Russian space agency did not immediately offer an explanation for the crash.
The most pressing concern was the orange cloud, which owed its coloring to the type of fuel used on the larger stages of the rocket. The fuel, called heptyl, is highly toxic if not burned during the flight. Kazakh authorities were cited in the Interfax news agency saying they might evacuate towns, though the region of scrub brush is sparsely populated.
… the rocket … is one of the largest rockets used today. The Proton weighs 700 tons on the launchpad, according to a reference book published by the Russian space agency; for comparison, a fully loaded 747 airplane weighs about 400 tons.
Most of its weight is fuel. Kazakh space officials said the rocket carried 600 tons of heptyl, kerosene and other propellants. Kazakhstan's government has tried to ban its use at Baikonur.
Even after successful launches, herders have founddead cows underneath the flight path, killed by eating grass contaminated from jettisoned rocket stages contaminated with unburned heptyl. …