A Russian Proton-M carrier rocket exploded shortly after takeoff from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome on July 2, raising fears that the highly toxic rocket fuel spilled will endanger residents of the already polluted south-west region of the country.
The rocket, carrying three Glonass navigation satellites, veered off course immediately after its launch at 8.38 a.m. local time. A live broadcast on Russia 24 television channel showed the vessel starting to fall apart before bursting into flames. It crashed to the ground around 2km from the launch pad.
"According to preliminary data, the accident occurred because of first stage engine failure," Kazakhstan's Minister of Emergency Situations, Vladimir Bozhko, said in a statement, according to the Prime Minister's website. Russian space agency, Roscosmos issued a statement saying no casualties were caused by the accident. Launches from the cosmodrome are expected to be suspended for at least two months.
A statement from the head of Kazakh space agency Kazcosmos admitted the rocket was carrying around 600 tonnes of highly toxic rocket fuel, but added that it burnt up during the incident, transforming it into a less dangerous compound.
"A simultaneous explosion of tanks with rocket fuel and oxygen took place as a result of the accident. According to experts, a simultaneous explosion of oxygen, heptyl and amyl provides their almost complete combustion and transformation into nitric oxide, which does not represent so big threat to the life of the population as heptyl and amyl," Talgat Mussabayev said in the press release.
Kazcosmos is monitoring the environmental situation though air and soil sampling, he added. Residents near the cosmodrome in southwest Kazakhstan were told to stay inside and keep their windows closed. Farmers were instructed to keep their livestock inside.
Interfax Kazakhstan cites an unnamed source at the cosmodrome saying that personnel had been evacuated. "A large poisonous cloud of rocket fuel has formed above the crash site. As the cloud is moving west, the personnel have been evacuated from the downwind launch pads," the source said.
Later on July 2, Kazakh Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov told government officials to set up a commission, to be headed by Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Kapparov, to investigate.
Baikonur, the Soviet Union's main rocket launch pad, was the site of a disastrous explosion in 1960, when a rocket exploded releasing poisonous fuel into the air. The incident killed 126 people instantly, and many more died later after sustaining burns and inhaling toxic fumes.
The latest accident threatens to reopen disagreements between Kazakhstan and Russia on the use of the Baikonur cosmodrome - which has the world's busiest launch schedule. The base is under lease to Moscow until 2050, but in January Astana asked Russia to scale down launches due to concern about the high level of pollution being provoked in the surrounding region. Russia responded with a threat to pull out of joint space projects. However, in February, the two governments appeared to have reached a compromise.
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