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Kazakhstan bans further Proton launches

The Kazakhstan authorities have banned further launches of Proton-M rockets from the Baikonur space centre until the cause of Thursday's crash is known. Launches planned for the end of the year are now in doubt.

Proton-M still the most reliable

Ecological improvements for the heavy booster

A Russian Proton-M rocket, carrying a Japanese satellite into orbit, crashed in central Kazakhstan. The unmanned booster, launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome on Thursday, exploded 135 seconds after the take off at an altitude of 74 kilometers.

“Fragments of the rocket fell down in a deserted area 50 kilometres to the southwest of Dzhezkazgan. According to our information, there was no damage and no casualties have been reported. The rocket and the satellite are insured. Now a special commission is looking into what caused the crash,” Aleksandr Vorobyov, Press Secretary of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, informed.

Experts say most of the rocket fuel was burnt up in the atmosphere though an area of around 100 square metres on the ground was scorched by fire.

The Second and third sections of the rocket have been found close to the crash site.

“The Proton – M rocket has been in operation since 2001 and this is the first time one has crashed. Space launches are highly complicated technical operations, and all companies working in this area face similar problems. We hope our partners will show some understanding in this situation,” said Aleksandr Bobrenev, spokesperson for the Khrunichev Space Research and Development Centre.

Meanwhile, Kazahstan's Prime Minister Karim Masimov stated:

“I have signed a governmental decree, to set up a state commission which will be headed by the Emergencies Minister to settle this situation”.

Accidents are uncommon for this class of booster. Proton-M rockets are known worldwide for their safety record.

“Rockets of such class have been used for decades and most of the 25 accidents took place in 1960s. It was re-designed in 2001, and since then this is the first crash out of 17 launches. This type of rocket is used commercially and our customers will definitely think twice before using it in the future. At the same time other rockets on the market also suffer losses due to accidents,” comments Aleksandr Zheleznyakov, the author of ‘Encyclopedia of Cosmonautics’.

Proton rockets were scheduled to put six Russian GLONASS spacecraft into orbit by the end of the year.

After the suspension of future launches, this program is now at risk of delay.

Still the most reliable

Despite the recent accident, experts say Proton-M remains the world's most reliable heavy booster. Its alternative, Angara, is scheduled to be ready no sooner than in several years.

The rocket was originally designed to carry nuclear warheads, but has since become a highly successful heavy booster used for commercial purposes. First launched in 1965 it has undergone a series of changes.

“Russian space launchers are really the world’s workhorses in terms of getting satellites into space, and this is a new upgraded version of the launcher. It is capable of carrying more payload into space in a more reliable way than ever before,” Paul Tadich, Russia Today’s scientific expert, commented.

Constructed in Moscow, it is transported horizontally to Baikonur in Kazakhstan, its only launch site.

The latest model, the Proton-M, can place as much as 22 tonnes into low Earth orbit and between 3 and 5 tonnes into geostationary orbit, depending on the booster used. With about a 95% success rate, it remains the world's most reliable launch vehicle.

Ecological improvements

Continuous efforts are being made to make it more environmentally friendly.

“Proton-M booster is more environmentally friendly than Proton-K, it has a special system that burns the remaining fuel out of the disposed rocket stages and empties all fuel from the tanks of these stages, Yury Karash,” independent space analyst, explained.

But the improvements in reducing its toxic effects do not help when crashes occur, which can result in ecological damage. 

In 1999, the previous model, the Proton-K, twice fell out of the sky, straining relations between Russia and Kazakhstan. Russia paid a quarter of a million U.S. dollars as compensation to its neighbour for the environmental effects caused by the accident.
The next generation of heavy boosters, known as Angara, is still being developed. Their use will end Russia's dependency on the Ukrainian rocket parts that are currently used, and launches will be possible from the Russian Plesetsk cosmodrome.