An unmanned Russian rocket carrying a Japanese communications satellite malfunctioned after liftoff Thursday, sending parts crashing in an uninhabited part of Kazakhstan and triggering concerns about environmental damage.
Nobody was hurt, but it was a potential blow to Russia’s program for commercial satellite launches.
The Proton-M rocket failed to put the JCSAT-11 satellite into orbit because of a problem during operation of the second stage, the U.S.-based American-Russian joint venture International Launch Services said.
The rocket failed 139 seconds after its launch from the Russian-rented Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan, and its second and third stages veered from the planned trajectory at an altitude of 46 miles, said Alexander Vorobyov, a spokesman for the Russian space agency Roskosmos.
Parts of the rocket fell in an uninhabited area about 30 miles southwest of the central Kazakh town of Zhezkazgan, Vorobyov said.
The rocket was carrying more than 220 tons of fuel, including highly toxic heptyl, Kazakh space agency chief Talgat Musabayev said. Officials expressed concern about possible contamination around the crash site, Kazakhstan’s Kazinform news agency reported.
Deputy environment minister Zeynulla Sarsembayev said there had been six “serious situations” involving failed launches from Baikonur since 1996 and warned that Kazakhstan would tighten environmental safety requirements for launches, the Kazakhstan Today news agency reported on its Web site. He did not give elaborate.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov said Kazakhstan would be fully compensated for environmental damage under existing agreements, according to Russian news agencies.
Under an agreement with Kazakhstan, launches of Proton rockets from Baikonur were automatically suspended until the cause of the crash is determined, Vorobyov said.
He said that was unlikely to affect future launches, but an official at state-controlled Khrunichev State Research and Production Center, which makes Proton rockets, said that would depend on when an official investigative commission delivers its report.
Following an accident involving a different kind of rocket launched from Baikonur last year, the report came in about six weeks, and Proton launches are scheduled for November and December, Khrunichev spokesman Alexander Bobrenyov said.
Russian and Kazakh media quoted Musabayev as saying the accident was likely caused by the failure of steering mechanisms aboard the rocket, but Bobrenyov said it was too early to make that determination.
Russia has been aggressively trying to expand its presence in the international market for commercial and government satellite and space-industry launches, although its efforts have seen several high-profile failures.
In July 2006, a Dnepr rocket carrying 18 satellites for various clients crashed shortly after takeoff from the Baikonur, spreading highly toxic fuel over a wide swath of uninhabited territory in Kazakhstan.
The JCSAT-11 satellite, made by U.S.-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems, was to be used by Japan’s JSAT Corp., International Launch Services said. The heavy-lift Proton, a top income-generator for Russia’s space industry, is made by Khrunichev, a partner in International Launch Services.
The McLean, Va.-based ILS, which says it has exclusive rights for commercial sales and mission management of satellite launches on Russia’s Proton rockets, plans 21 Proton missions through 2013.