A 700 ton Russian rocket carrying navigation satellites exploded today over Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s busiest spaceport, and it may cramp the style of private space businesses and even NASA.
“What a beautiful sight!” a TV announcer covering the launch said, according to a translation at the Los Angeles Times. “But something is going wrong! Something is wrong! It seems to be a catastrophe!”
The Baikonur Cosmodrome hosts frequent launches for partners all over the world, from private companies selling satellite phones to the crews of the International Space Station—including NASA astronauts, who take off there because the US is still developing a spacecraft to replace its shuttered shuttle program. Hours before today’s crash, India’s space agency successfully launched a navigation satellite there. The next two launches scheduled, on July 19 and 20, are a US Navy satellite and an Astra television satellite intended to broadcast in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Those flights may be in doubt. While there have been no reports of injuries, the toxic fuel used in the rocket has contaminated the air around the launchpad, and local authorities were urging the 70,000 citizens of Baikonur to stay inside to avoid the fuel clouds pictured in this news report from nearby Kyrgyzstan (link in Russian). Rocket fuel contamination is a major issue for all space programs; one of the flaws in the US space shuttle was the need to essentially clean off hazardous materials before it could be reused. It’s still not clear how long it will take to decontaminate the area and assess damage to the spaceport.
The rocket in question, the Proton-M, is a new technology developed by Russia to lift larger payloads. The Soyuz rocket is typically used to launch astronauts but can only carry one satellite for Glonass, the Russian equivalent of GPS. The Proton-M can theoretically carry three, although Proton launches have failed four times in the last three years. Last month, Russian authorities launched an investigation into potential embezzlement in the Glonass program.
Officials in Kazkhstan have tried to ban the use of heptyl, the toxic fuel in question, without success, but this incident could give them leverage. Russia is trying to reduce its dependence on Baikonur by building a new, $800 million spaceport, set to open in 2015.