ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A Russian rocket carrying three navigation satellites worth around $200 million crashed shortly after lift-off from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Tuesday after its engines suddenly switched off.
The accident led to a large spill of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket propellant, but there were no reports of casualties or of any immediate threat to nearby settlements.
State-run Rossiya-24 television showed footage of the Proton-M booster rocket veering off course seconds after lift-off. It fell apart in flames in the air and crashed in a ball of fire near the launch pad.
Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying launch-pad personnel were in bunkers when the rocket lifted off.
Russia's space agency Roscosmos said the accident had been caused by the emergency switch-off of the rocket's engines 17 seconds into the flight.
Russia's state-run RIA news agency said the switch-off could have been caused by a problem with the engine or the guidance system.
The rocket contained 172 metric tons (1 metric ton = 1.1023 tons) of highly toxic heptyl propellant, Kazakh Emergencies Minister Vladimir Bozhko told an emergency government meeting.
Talgat Musabayev, head of Kazakhstan's space agency Kazcosmos, said nitric oxide - a product of burning heptyl - was much less toxic for humans. He said it was raining in the area, so toxic clouds would probably not reach the town of Baikonur some 60 km (38 miles) away.
However, the authorities instructed locals to stay at home and not to open windows, and ordered to close shops and public catering, said Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhambet Kasymov.
The estimated loss from the three satellites, meant for Russia's troubled Glonass satellite navigation system, was about $200 million, Rossiya-24 reported.
Russia plans to spend more than 300 billion roubles ($9.1 billion) by 2020 on Glonass, its answer to the U.S. GPS system.
The system, first conceived by the Soviet Union more than 40 years ago, has been plagued by failed launches, including one in 2010 in which three satellites were also lost, and by suspicions of corruption and embezzlement. Its chief designer was dismissed last year during a fraud investigation.
The Proton rocket, known at the time under its UR-500 code, made its first test flights in the mid-1960s.
It was originally designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead targeting the Soviet Union's Cold War foe the United States. But it was never deployed as a nuclear weapon.
Several crashes of Proton rockets accompanied by spills of heptyl have led to temporary strains in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Russia is increasing spending on space and plans to send a probe to the moon in 2015, but the pioneering program that put the first man in space in 1961 has been plagued in recent years by setbacks, including botched satellite launches and a failed attempt to send a probe to a moon of Mars.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Raushan Nurshayeva in Asatana; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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