Unlike its western competitors who haven't seen an accident in years, the safety record of Russia's workhorse Proton-M rocket is rather poor

High-tech satellite lost as Russia's Proton fails again

An advanced telecommunications satellite has been destroyed as a launch attempt of Russia’s Proton-M rocket went awry.

According to available information, the rocket, carrying the £164m Express AM4R satellite, manufactured for Russia by European consortium Astrium, crashed on Friday morning soon after lift-off from Cosmodrome Baikonur after a failure at the altitude of about 160km.

Astrium said the satellite, meant to provide advanced telecommunications services and Internet access to remote areas of Russia, was one of the most powerful ever built in Europe.

The satellite was already a replacement for another spacecraft destroyed in a Proton-M explosion in 2011.

The Proton-M rocket, derived from a Proton launcher developed in the 1960s, was last grounded in the summer of 2013 after crashing immediately after lift-off and destroying three Russian GLONASS navigation satellites aboard. Back then, positioning sensors mounted the wrong way round were identified as the cause of the mishap. 

The latest failure, which occurred nine minutes into the flight, was caused by the rocket’s third stage booster.

According to Oleg Ostapenko, the head of Russian space agency Roskosmos, the exact cause of the incident was not known

According to Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti, most of the wreckage burned in the atmosphere and no major pieces of debris reached the Earth’s surface. "We can say with certainty that nothing reached Earth," Ostapenko said.

However, Russian media said some debris may have fallen into the Pacific or been scattered over Siberia and Russia's Far East. No casualties or damage were reported on the ground.

"It's a heavy blow, of course. And the thing is that our workhorse rocket - our most powerful and the most-used rocket - has such a bad record," Ivan Moiseyev, head of the Russian-based Institute of Space Policy think tank, told Kommersant-FM radio.

He said the rocket had a 7 per cent failure rate, and its unreliability was making it harder for Russia to compete in the multibillion-dollar global satellite launch industry, giving a boost to its European rival Arianespace and the American newcomer SpaceX.

"It's a very unsuccessful picture on the whole and, if you compare it with our main competitors, with Europe, their last accident was 12 years ago," Moiseyev said.

Cosmodrome Baikonur lies on the territory of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan who has been disconcerted by the string of critical failures of Russia’s workhorse rocket. Following the Friday mishap, Kazakhstan has imposed a ban on all Proton launches from Baikonur

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