Live footage of Proton-M launch failure  on July 1, 2013 (Credits: TSENKI).

Live footage of Proton-M launch failure on July 1, 2013 (Credits: TSENKI).

At 8:38 A.M. local time on July 2, a three-stage Proton-M with Block DM-03 upper stage took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome’s launch pad 24 at launch complex 81 carrying three GLONASS-M navigation satellites. Less than a minute later, the rocket and its cargo was back on the ground in a ball of fire and billows of corrosive smoke.

There is not yet word as to what could have caused the spectacular launch failure. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered a government commission to investigate the incident, while Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is responsible for oversight of the Russian space industry, is quoted by RIA Novosti as warning that “heads would roll.”

The flaming vehicle landed approximately 2.5 km from its launch pad, near launch complex 200. The immediate safety concern was the 600 tons of nearly unused fuel. Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine, commonly known as UDMH, is toxic and can be absorbed through the skin. The Proton-M’s oxidizer, Dinitrogen Tetroxide, is an inhalation and contact hazard, causing edema and skin burns. Clouds of these materials immediately began drifting over the Kazakh plains following the crash. The Cosmodrome was evacuated and the nearest town – Baikonur at 57 km distance – was instructed to shut all windows and turn off air conditioners to avoid intake of contaminated air. These restrictions were lifted shortly thereafter as rain appeared to be limiting dispersion. The Cosmodrome will likely remain closed for two to three months while clean up is undertaken. No injuries have been reported at this time.

The immediate impact of this incident will be to delay a Proton-M launch that had been scheduled for July 21, carrying

Map of Baikonur Cosmodrome (Credits: Spaceref.com).

Map of Baikonur Cosmodrome (Credits: Spaceref.com).

broadcast satellite ASTRA 2E; all Proton-Ms are suspended pending results of the investigation. The launch of a Progress M-20M cargo ship full of supplies to the International Space Station will also likely be delayed from its scheduled date of July 27. There is not yet word as to whether the launch of ISS Expedition 37/38, now scheduled for September 25, will also be delayed.  While NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations pointed out in a statement that “the Proton rocket is a very different design than the Soyuz rocket,” lack of access to Baikonur Cosmodrome during cleanup may still impact the launch of Soyuz TMA-10M with cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, and astronaut Michael Hopkins. The crew currently aboard ISS are not likely to suffer from any delay in their supply chain due to the scheduled August launch of Japan’s HTV-2 supply vessel; some shuffling of supplies may be required to prioritize needs.

The exact duration of the doomed flight appears to be in dispute. Roscosmos issued a statement saying that the engine had been cutoff at 17 seconds and RIA Novosti reported on that basis that the flight itself had lasted 17 seconds. However, live footage of the event captured by television station Rossiya-24 shows the rocket continuing to fire until it hit the ground at something closer to 50 seconds.

According to Anatoly Zak, Roscosmos blocks engine cutoff of first stages for the first 42 seconds of flight as a safety precaution, to ensure its rockets clear the launch area before a potential abort. In this case, with the rocket headed straight back down, that “safety precaution” sent the rocket into the ground under full propulsive force. The result is a 200 m crater at the impact site.

There have been several Proton-M failures in recent years – this is the fifth since 2010. Most of the failures have been associated with upper stages, such as the December 5, 2010 accident when a Proton-M veered off course and landed in the Pacific Ocean along with three earlier GLONASS satellites. The last time a Proton crashed in the vicinity of its launch facility was the April 2, 1969 launch of Mars probe Mars 2M No.522, which launched from the very same pad 24 and landed 3 km away after its first stage engines caught fire and exploded.

The destroyed GLONASS-M satellites have been estimated to be worth $200 million. The Proton-M itself was insured for $182 million. The total cost of the event is likely to be much higher, however. The latest in a long string of recent Russian launch failures, this incident is likely to cost Russia customers and serious shakeups of the industry can be expected to ensue.

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Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.