, ALMATY, July 2 – An unmanned Russian carrier rocket exploded Tuesday on takeoff at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, releasing tonnes of highly toxic fuel into the air in the space programme’s latest disaster caught on live television.
Spectacular footage showed the Proton-M rocket veering off its trajectory just seconds after its 6:38 am (0238 GMT) launch, before falling apart in mid air, erupting into a ball of flames and unleashing clouds of noxious black smoke.
“It seems something is going wrong,” said a Russian television commentator during the live coverage of the launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan.
“Something is wrong. It seems it will be a catastrophe,” said the presenter, his voice trembling, shortly before the rocket exploded.
President Vladimir Putin had been informed of the accident, the Kremlin said in a statement.
The rocket, which fell back into the area of the Baikonur cosmodrome which Russia leases from ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, was supposed to take three Russian Glonass M navigation satellites into space.
The rocket carried 600 tonnes of kerosene, heptyl and amyl which are highly poisonous components of rocket fuel, said the head of the Kazakh space agency, Talgat Musabayev.
The Russian space agency Roskosmos, citing preliminary information, said the accident caused no damage or casualties but the crash site was immediately cordoned off and residents of nearby towns including Baikonur were told to stay indoors and keep their windows shut.
Heptyl is a highly poisonous component of rocket fuel and is known to be more toxic than the chemical weapon sarin.
Kazakh officials played down the immediate danger to people, saying a lot of the fuel had burned in the air but some experts suggested the fumes may find their way into drinking water.
Locals said the explosion sounded like thunder and that they were not unduly concerned about their safety.
“They asked us to stay indoors and not to open windows,” said Mukhtar Umurzakov, a 46 year old driver, who lives in the town of Kyzyl Orda some 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Baikonur.