If Russia was hoping to punctuate its foreign policy victory over the US in hosting Edward Snowden and being on the list of his asylum applicants with the overnight launch of a unmanned Proton-M rocket, carrying some $200 million worth of navigation satellites, those hopes literally went up in flames when 17 seconds into the take off, an emergency switch-off of the engines led to a spectacular explosion, and sent the rocket plummeting to earth. End result: a massive blow up caught on live TV, hundreds of millions in equipment lost and 172 metric tons of highly toxic heptyl propellant raining on the ground for miles around the crash.
A Russian rocket carrying three navigation satellites worth around $200 million crashed shortly after lift-off from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Tuesday after its engines suddenly switched off. The accident led to a large spill of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket propellant, but there were no reports of casualties or of any immediate threat to nearby settlements.
State-run Rossiya-24 television showed footage of the Proton-M booster rocket veering off course seconds after lift-off. It fell apart in flames in the air and crashed in a ball of fire near the launch pad.
Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying launch-pad personnel were in bunkers when the rocket lifted off.
Russia's space agency Roscosmos said the accident had been caused by the emergency switch-off of the rocket's engines 17 seconds into the flight. Russia's state-run RIA news agency said the switch-off could have been caused by a problem with the engine or the guidance system.
The rocket contained 172 metric tons (1 metric ton = 1.1023 tons) of highly toxic heptyl propellant, Kazakh Emergencies Minister Vladimir Bozhko told an emergency government meeting.
Talgat Musabayev, head of Kazakhstan's space agency Kazcosmos, said nitric oxide - a product of burning heptyl - was much less toxic for humans. He said it was raining in the area, so toxic clouds would probably not reach the town of Baikonur some 60 km (38 miles) away.
However, the authorities instructed locals to stay at home and not to open windows, and ordered to close shops and public catering, said Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhambet Kasymov.
The estimated loss from the three satellites, meant for Russia's troubled Glonass satellite navigation system, was about $200 million, Rossiya-24 reported.
Footage of the dramatic crash below: