Russia’s satellite mission ruined as US$29b rocket crashes after lift-off

Engine failure said to have caused rocket carrying expensive advanced satellite to fall

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 3:05pm

An unmanned Russian rocket carrying a European-built satellite crashed today shortly after lift-off in the latest accident to hit the country’s once-proud space industry.

State television showed the Proton-M rocket and its Express-AM4P communications satellite, reported to be worth US$29 billion, burning up in the upper layers of the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.

Russian space officials said the rocket’s control engine failed 545 seconds after it took off at 1.42am Moscow time from the Baikonur space centre, which Russia leases in Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Roscosmos federal space agency said it had formed a special commission “to analyse the telemetric data and discover the reasons for the emergency situation”.

Russian media said the problem arose with the third stage about nine minutes into the flight at a height of about 150 kilometres, and parts of the satellite fell into the Pacific Ocean or were scattered over Siberia and Russia’s Far East.

“We have an emergency situation,” Channel One television showed a Russian flight commentator as saying. “The flight is over.”

No casualties or other damage were reported.

Channel One said the satellite – built for Russia by Airbus Group’s Astrium corporation – was meant to provide internet access to far-flung Russian territories with poor access to communication.

The Express-AM4R satellite which was being carried into orbit is the most advanced telecommunications satellite used by Russia, designed to provide affordable Internet access to people in remote parts of the country, Russian media reports said.

It was the first major accident involving a Proton-M rocket since last July, when three navigation satellites worth about US$200 million were lost when the engines failed.

That accident strained relations between Kazakhstan and Russia, which are close political and trade allies, and Kazakhstan imposed a temporary ban on all Proton launches from its territory.

Moscow’s Rossiya-24 television said all launches had been suspended from Kazakhstan after today’s launch.

Russia sacked its previous Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin last October after less than two years on the job because of a string of failed launches and other embarrassing incidents to the country’s underfunded but fiercely proud space industry.

New Roscosmos head Oleg Ostapenko has been charged by President Vladimir Putin to overhaul the entire sector with billions of dollars in extra state funding.