NBCNEWS.COM - Russia has temporarily suspended upcoming launches of its Proton-M rocket in the wake of Tuesday's high-profile mishap, according to media reports. An unmanned Proton-M crashed shortly after blasting off at 6:38 a.m. Moscow time on Tuesday (10:38 p.m. ET Monday). Three navigation satellites worth a total of nearly $200 million were destroyed. The incident marked the fifth major Proton launch failure since December 2010.
The Proton has been grounded while a Russian governmental commission investigates the causes of the crash and attempts to determine which officials bear responsibility for it, the Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported.
Toxic smoke driftsRussia's space agency said the booster's engines experienced an emergency shutdown 17 seconds into the flight. The Proton-M crashed about 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) from its launch site, Baikonur Cosmodrome in the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, gouging out a crater reported to be 660 feet (200 meters) wide.
The rocket was carrying 600 tons of toxic heptyl, amyl and kerosene fuel. Rain has helped keep the burning fuel's poisonous smoke in check, but officials say this smoke could continue to drift, Ria Novosti reported. The town closest to the crash site is Baikonur, which lies about 38 miles (60 kilometers) away. No injuries have been reported there or anywhere else as a result of the mishap.
However, contamination will likely suspend activities at Baikonur Cosmodrome for two or three months, Ria Novosti reported, citing an unnamed source within the Russian space industry. The launch of a robotic Progress cargo ship to the International Space Station from Baikonur, currently scheduled for July 27, will probably be delayed as a result, according to this source. The next manned launch from Baikonur is Soyuz 36, which is slated to blast off on Sept. 25 to take three new crew members to the International Space Station.
Significant delaysThe next Proton-M launch on the docket is currently set to take place July 20 and deliver the Astra 2E communications satellite to orbit. That mission will probably be significantly delayed due to the Proton investigation.
The three satellites that crashed Monday were supposed to join the Glonass navigation system, which Russia is developing as a homegrown alternative to the United States' Global Positioning System.
This week's mishap continues a string of recent problems for Glonass. Three other satellites bound for the constellation were lost after another Proton crash in December 2010, for example, and the Glonass network's chief designer was let go last year amid accusations of corruption. The Proton-M that went down was insured for 6 billion rubles ($182 million) with the Russian Insurance Center, Ria Novosti reported.