Once again, a Russian rocket breaks up after launch. (+video)
Another failure of a Proton-M, this time destroying a $275 million communication satellite, is raising doubts about reliability of Russia's workhorse rocket.
Moscow/Almaty — A Russian rocket carrying a $275 million telecommunications satellite failed and burned up shortly after launch on Friday, the latest in a series of setbacks for Russia's once-pioneering space industry.
It was the second failure for Russia's workhorse Proton-M rocket in less than a year, and the second time that it had failed to deliver a European satellite intended to provide advanced telecoms and Internet access to remote parts of Russia, after the last one crashed shortly after launch in 2011.
Friday's unmanned mission went awry when the engine on the third stage of the Proton-M booster rocket failed, Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, told Russian news agencies. He said the precise cause was unknown.
The failure occurred at an altitude of 160 km (100 miles), about nine minutes after the early-morning lift-off from the Russian-leased Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan.
The state-run RIA quoted Ostapenko as saying that the rocket and all debris had burned up in the atmosphere: "We can say with certainty that nothing reached Earth."
However, Russian media said some debris may have fallen into the Pacific or been scattered over Siberia and Russia's Far East. No casualties or damage were reported on the ground.
The lost Express AM4R satellite, worth more than 200 million euros ($275 million), was described by its maker Astrium, a unit of the European aerospace group Airbus, as one of the most powerful satellites built in Europe.
Its loss delays a number of commercial projects by three to four years.
"It's a heavy blow, of course. And the thing is that our workhorse rocket - our most powerful and the most-used rocket - has such a bad record," Ivan Moiseyev, head of the Russian-based Institute of Space Policy think tank, told Kommersant-FM radio.
He said the rocket had a 7 percent failure rate, and its unreliability was making it harder for Russia to compete in the multibillion-dollar global satellite launch industry, giving a boost to its European rival Arianespace and the American newcomer SpaceX.
"It's a very unsuccessful picture on the whole and, if you compare it with our main competitors, with Europe, their last accident was 12 years ago," Moiseyev said.
Last July, three navigation satellites worth about $200 million were lost when the Proton-M rocket crashed near the launch pad shortly after take-off.
That accident strained relations between Kazakhstan and Russia and led Kazakhstan to temporarily ban Proton launches from Baikonur.
State-run Rossiya-24 television said all launches had been suspended from Kazakhstan after Friday's failure. ($1 = 0.7291 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Kevin Liffey)