A Russian booster rocket carrying three navigation satellites worth around $200 million crashed shortly after lift-off from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan on Tuesday after its engines suddenly switched off.
The accident led to a large spill of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket propellant, but there were no reports of casualties or of any immediate threat to nearby settlements.
The agency quoted Kazakh Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhkov as saying the burning rocket fuel has blanketed the launch pad with a toxic cloud. He said authorities have yet to determine any potential environmental danger.
State-run Rossiya-24 TV showed footage of the Proton-M booster rocket veering off course seconds after launch. It flew horizontally and began to come apart in flames, crashing in a ball of fire near the launch pad.
Series of problems
Russian Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev, who has said that Russia has lost 10 satellites in seven failed launches in slightly more than one year, ordered tighter controls put in place to avoid more embarrassing mishaps, his spokeswoman told Interfax.
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. The shutdown could have been caused by a problem with the engine or the guidance system, the state-run RIA news agency reported.
Another Proton-M booster crashed in Baikonur in August 2012 when it failed to place two satellites into orbit. The crash also echoes the costly loss of three navigation satellites in 2010, and will further damage the reputation of Russia's once-pioneering space program, cause delays in launches and threaten its hold on some 40 percent of the market for space launches.
Russian space officials have blamed the failures on manufacturing flaws and engineering mistakes.
Aging space program
The Associated Press news agency quotes observers who say the problem is rooted in a post-Soviet industrial meltdown, however, that has stalled the modernization of the space industry.
Russia plans to spend more than $9.1 billion by 2020 on Glonass, its answer to the U.S. Global Positioning System [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.
Russia's workhorse Proton rocket, known at the time under its UR-500 code, made its first test flights in the mid-1960s. It originally was 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.
Russia is increasing spending on space and plans to send a probe to the moon in 2015, but the pioneering program that put the first man in space in 1961 has been plagued in recent years by setbacks, including botched satellite launches and a failed attempt to send a probe to a moon of Mars.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.