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Russian Rocket Fails After Launch, Breaking Up Over China

With an expensive communication satellite as its payload, a Russian Proton-M rocket broke apart during its third stage last night. The unmanned rocket failed at an altitude of 100 miles — video of the launch showed it flaring across the night sky.

The failure occurred about nine minutes after takeoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and officials say the rocket was over China at the time. There are conflicting reports about whether debris from the rocket might have hit the Earth's surface.

From Ria Novosti:

"Roscosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko said the stage and its payload burned up in the atmosphere above China, with no debris reaching Earth. The Proton has been grounded pending results from an investigation into the failure. The next Proton launch was scheduled for July 15."

But Britain's The Independent says, "Parts were found scattered across the far east of Russia, Siberia and even in the Pacific Ocean."

And Radio Free Europe adds, "In Australia, witnesses described seeing what appeared to be large chunks of satellite debris crashing to Earth."

The newspaper notes that the rocket's payload was an advanced satellite that was intended to bring Internet access to remote parts of Russia. According to Ria Novosti, the rocket had been insured for around $225 million.

The failure was due to "malfunction of the steering engine unit of the third stage of the Proton-M. It malfunctioned at the 545th second of the flight," Russia's state-run ITAR-TASS news agency says.

This is the second mishap involving a Proton rocket in the past 12 months; one of the rockets exploded shortly after liftoff last July. And another one broke apart in 2012, creating what called a "cloud of debris" — or space junk — in the atmosphere.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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