Moscow: A cloud of highly toxic orange-hued fumes was wafting toward the city of Baikonur in Kazakhstan on Tuesday after an unmanned Russian rocket veered off course and crashed a few seconds after blastoff.
The Proton-M rocket rose just above its launch tower during the early morning blastoff, wobbled and then tipped over into the desert in a ball of fire.
There were no reported injuries where the rocket landed in the territory of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, an area that Russia rents for rocket launches. But the short round-trip, instead of a journey to space, made for one of the most dramatic rocket disasters in Russia's space program in recent years.
"According to the preliminary estimates from the Russian side, there is no destruction and there are no casualties," the Kazakh space agency, KazCosmos, said in a statement, according to Reuters.
By midday in Kazakhstan, however, photographs posted online showed an ominous, elongated and orange-hued horsetail cloud stretching over buildings near the launch pad.
The city of Baikonur, which has a population of 70,000, is located near the launch pad. The city government there posted fliers asking residents to take shelter in their homes.
"Because of the failed launch at the cosmodrome a cloud of unburned fuel is moving near Baikonur," a photograph of a flier posted online said. "We recommend that you don't leave home, shut your windows and doors tightly and don't use air conditioning."
The rocket carried three satellites for Russia's Glonas navigation system, an analogue to the US Global Positioning System that Russia has been trying to build for years.
In video of the crash broadcast by Rossiya 24, a Russian state television channel, the satellites appear to break apart from the nose cone as the rocket tumbles to earth. The station estimated the value at $US200 million.
The crash was also a setback for the Proton rocket, a workaday booster for the Russian space program used for commercial and military payloads.
The Russian space agency did not immediately offer an explanation of the likely cause of the crash.
The most pressing concern was the orange cloud, which owed its colouring to the type of fuel used on the larger stages of the rocket. The fuel, called heptyl, is highly toxic if not burned during the flight. Kazakh authorities were cited in the Interfax news agency saying they might evacuate towns, though the region of scrub brush is sparsely populated.
"We recommend that you don't leave home, shut your windows and doors tightly and don't use air conditioning."
New York Times