A still frame taken from a video showing the crash of the unmanned Russian Proton-M booster rocket in Baikonur, Kazakhstan

Russian rocket crashes in flames shortly after launch

A Russian rocket carrying three navigation satellites worth around $200m crashed shortly after lift-off today.

The rocket was launched from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan today but crashed after its engines suddenly switched off, leading to a large spill of heptyl – a highly toxic rocket propellant.

State-run Rossiya-24 television showed footage of the Proton-M booster rocket veering off course seconds after lift-off before falling apart in flames in the air and crashing 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, but there were no reports of casualties or of any immediate threat to nearby settlements.

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 and 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 estimated loss from the three satellites, meant for Russia's troubled Glonass satellite navigation system, was about $200m, Rossiya-24 reported. Russia plans to spend more than 300bn roubles ($9.1bn) by 2020 on Glonass, its answer to the US GPS system.

The system, first conceived by the Soviet Union more than 40 years ago, has been plagued by failed launches, including one in 2010 in which three satellites were also lost, and by suspicions of corruption and embezzlement. Its chief designer was dismissed last year during a fraud investigation.

Another Proton-M booster carrying two satellites crashed in Baikonur in August 2012 with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev chiding officials after that incident, saying Russia had lost 10 satellites in seven failed launches in just over a year.

The Proton rocket, known at the time under its UR-500 code, made its first test flights in the mid-1960s.

It was originally designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead targeting the Soviet Union's Cold War foe the United States, but it was never deployed as a nuclear weapon.

Several crashes of Proton rockets accompanied by spills of heptyl have led to temporary strains in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan, but they may not have to worry for much longer thanks to the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome near Russia's Pacific Coast.

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia the unmanned probe, the Luna-Globe or Moon Globe, is planned to be the first launch from Vostochny in 2015 with the first manned flights from its own soil due to take place in 2018.

The rocket contained 172 tonnes 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 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.

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