Update at 3:25 p.m. ET on July 10.
The Russian Proton-M rocket that fell out of the sky last week may have been doomed by sensors that were installed upside down, according to an unconfirmed report from the website Russian Space Web. The "angular velocity sensors" were a critical part of the circuitry that was supposed to keep the rocket upright during launch. A young technician apparently botched the installation.
Our original post:
This morning saw the spectacular failure of an unmanned Russian rocket. A massive Proton-M rocket carrying three Russian navigation satellites veered off course shortly after liftoff. Try not to cover your eyes:
Amateur video reportedly shot from nearby captured the ill-fated flight in a single frame:
A brief statement from the Russian Space agency says the failure occurred 17 seconds into the flight. The New York Times reports there were no injuries or fatalities from the accident, but says authorities told the 70,000 residents of the nearby Kazakh city of Baikonur to stay indoors over fears that a cloud of toxic rocket fuel released into the air during the crash could drift toward the city.
But rainfall appeared to have broken up the poisonous plume, and news reports said officials lifted the restrictions hours later.
The crash of the Proton-M rocket appeared to have been caused by a failure of the first-stage Energomash RD-276 engines, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and rocket expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
McDowell tells NPR in an email that he doesn't think the accident poses a risk to American and Russian astronauts, who depend on a different rocket known as Soyuz to get to the International Space Station. The Soyuz is built by a different manufacturer and uses different parts.
But, he says, the failure is yet another blow for Russia's struggling space industry. The Proton-M is built by Khrunichev, which has been "the most successful Russian company in terms of marketing its rockets to the West," McDowell says. "But the failure rate over the past few years is now likely to discourage commercial [communications] satellite companies from booking Proton rides."