After threatening to lock US astronauts out of the International Space Station, all Russia needed was a solid rocket launch to declare itself the current cowboys of space. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what didn’t happen, with an attempt to put Russia’s most technologically-advanced satellite into orbit last night ending in disaster as the $206m Express-AM4P burned up over China after a fault with the Proton rocket.
Express-AM4P had been intended to deliver internet access to rural areas of Russia, among other things, and was the handiwork of Astrium, a division of Airbus Group.
However, nine minutes after launching from Kazakhstan, the Proton-M booster rocket encountered technical problems. The state space agency, ROSCOSMOS, says that it is still examining the telemetry returned, but that it believes the incident occurred when the rocket reached around 150-160km (93-99 miles).
Preliminary signs point to “an emergency pressure drop in a steering engine of the third stage of the rocket,” agency chief Oleg Ostapenko said, Russia Today reports, pointing out that the burn-up of debris meant there would be little risk to anybody on the ground.
Further Proton-M launches have been frozen while the investigation proceeds. It’s not the first time the rocket has been blamed for failed launches, however, last being grounded a little less than a year ago after crashing and destroying its cargo of GLONASS location satellites.
Space travel has been in the headlines over the past week, after trade tensions saw Russia threaten to yank its support for extending the ISS project. Since the US is currently reliant on Russian rockets to get crews to the orbiting research platform, that could leave NASA in a sticky situation.
It’s one which US lawmakers aren’t happy about, either, challenging NASA to come up with contingency plans should relations with Russia fail to recover.