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Posted: July 1, 2013

A Russian Proton rocket went out of control and slammed into the steppes of Kazakhstan mere moments after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Monday night.

Credit: Tsenki TV via ShuttleAlmanac

The government booster was carrying three Russian navigation satellites on the ill-fated mission that launched at 0238 GMT (10:38 p.m. EDT).

Live video showed the Proton gyrating left and then right as it ascended off the pad before going horizontal, barrel rolling and falling into a nose dive. The front end of the rocket sheared away and the main stage erupted in a massive fireball before hitting the ground in a horrific explosion.

The entire flight appeared to last a half-minute.

Russian rockets do not carry self-destruct explosives like Western boosters, which prevented any attempt to destroy the wayward Proton before impact.

A Russian Federal Space Agency statement said an emergency committee being created would be headed by Deputy Head of Roscosmos Alexander Lopatin.

Standing 19-stories tall, the rocket weighed nearly 1.5 million pounds at launch, its first three stages loaded with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants and the upper stage filled with kerosene and liquid oxygen.

The Proton is built by the Khrunichev State Research and Production and RSC Energia makes the Block DM upper stage.

Six main engines ignite at liftoff to power the vehicle away from the launch pad and burns for two minutes. The second stage and its four engines fire through five-and-a-half minutes of the mission before the third stage and its single engine takes over. The upper stage then completes the necessary burns to shape the orbit for deployment of the spacecraft.

Monday's launch featured a three-stage Proton core vehicle topped with a Block DM upper stage to maneuver three GLONASS navigation satellites -- Nos. 48, 49 and 50 -- into their desired Earth orbit.

The flight was carrying fresh craft for the space-based navigation constellation, which transmits positioning signals for military and civilian users. The satellites fly 12,000 miles above the planet in 64.8-degree inclination orbits. The system is similar in concept to the U.S. GPS network.

It was 388th Proton rocket to launch since 1965 and the fifth this year, following a series of commercial missions.

The program has suffered five failures in the past two-and-a-half years, mostly due to upper stage issues. Three other GLONASS satellites were lost in a botched launch in late 2010 due to a fuel miscalculation that prevented the vehicle from reaching orbit.

The next launch, presumably grounded for the investigation, was slated for July 21 carrying the commercial ASTRA 2E broadcast satellite for Europe.



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