The Proton-M rocket just seconds after launch, breaking up and crashing to earth.
A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying three satellites to orbit crash-landed just seconds after being launched from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan on Tuesday. No one was injured, but the explosion produced a cloud of toxic gas, unleashing panic among the region’s residents. Some are furious that their health might be endangered because of the Russian space programme.
The rocket was supposed to launch satellites that would provide information for the GLONASS navigation system, which Russia is developing to compete with the GPS system and Europe’s Galileo system, also under development. Due to a motor failure, the rocket veered off its trajectory seconds after takeoff, turned around and broke up in two pieces before crashing to earth in a loud and fiery explosion
2.5 kilometres from the launch site.
Amateur video of the crash posted on YouTube by TheMrSuslov.
The explosion could have serious health consequences for the residents of Baikonur, a town located some 50 kilometres from the rocket base, and the region in general. The Proton-M is powered by a 500-tonne combination of several fuels. The accident set the liquids on fire, causing thick plumes of smoke that could be seen from far away.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Insights
showed that heptyl fuels, which were among the fuels used in the rocket, can cause cancer
and genetic mutations. Heptyl fuels can stay in the ground for years. Even after a successful launch, remnants of burnt heptyl can continue to pose a threat to public health.
After the explosion, Kazakh authorities evacuated some of the staff at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and ordered residents to stay indoors and cut off air conditioning to prevent outside air from coming in. The director of the Khrunichev Space Centre, which makes the Proton rockets, played down the risk of toxic pollution caused by this accident. In addition, Russian and Kazakh authorities stated there are no health risks to local residents.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in arid steppes in the middle of Kazakhstan, was built in 1955 while the country was still part of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, shortly after the Soviet Union’s fall, Russia has leased the site from Kazakhstan. However, despite the economic benefits, Kazakhstan has expressed strong concern about damage to the environment. During negotiations to extend the lease to 2050, the country’s authorities managed to convince Russia to let them participate in oversight of the facility, as well as participate in the development of less-polluting rockets.
Another Proton-M rocket had already exploded in December 2010, shortly after take-off.