Early this morning, a Proton-M rocket launched by the Russian Federal Space Agency exploded a few seconds after taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the launch site for most Russian space launches.
The rocket was carrying three satellites to augment Russia’s GLONASS system, which is comparable in function to our own GPS. You can see in the video that the rocket, which was unmanned, began to fall apart shortly after reaching the top of the launch system. It then tipped over, ignited, and crashed to the ground, setting off a huge fireball.
According to Kazakh Space Agency chief Talgat Musabayev, the rocket was carrying about 600 metric tons of fuel, including heptyl, amyl and kerosene, and that the enormous fiery cloud which appeared shortly after the crash was due to the burning of the heptyl fuel. The cloud is described as “toxic” by the Kazakh Space Agency, but they insist the smoke will not reach the nearby town of Baikonur, which has a population of about 36,000. That said, a flier posted here recommends that residents “don’t leave home, shut your windows and doors tightly and don’t use air conditioning.”
Heptyl is a dangerous and toxic fuel, and Kazakhstan has tried to block its use in Russian rockets in the past. Since spent rockets fall to Earth onto land, rather than into the ocean as U.S. launches do, toxic fuel is a much more obvious problem. Some farmers in Kazakhstan have alleged that even after successful launches, animals that graze on the land near the launch sites have died due to eating contaminated grass. This explosion probably won’t help heptyl’s reputation among the Kazakhs.