Thankfully, Russia's manned space launches have all been successful lately, but their unmanned space operations didn't fare so well Tuesday morning, when a planned satellite launch ended in a spectacular fireball and became the latest reminder that getting to space is still very, very hard.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, a Proton-M heavy rocket proceeded with liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazachstan, only to divert off course almost immediately. After less than a minute of flight, the rocket that was supposed to proceed into the stratosphere with a delivery of three GLONASS-M satellites turned back toward earth. "It seems something is going wrong," said the television commentator, in Russian, during the launch. The rocket started to break up, head into free fall, and catch fire. "Something is wrong. It seems it will be a catastrophe," he continued. And then, moments later, the rocket hit the ground and exploded.
According to NASAspaceflight.com, there were no casualties in this embarrassing incident of international, suborbital ineptitude. It's unclear what caused the explosion, but the immediate concern was for the nearby Kazach residents who could be harmed by the poisonous 600 tons of highly poisonous kerosene, heptyl, and amyl that caught fire. (This satellite network seems to be a headache for Russia to install. A similar launch in December 2010 didn't make it into the orbit.) The explosion may cause problems with future commercial lunches because debris appears to have landed on a pad used by the International Launch Services.