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Russian rocket failure casts pall on European Mars missions

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
May 16, 2014, 22:35 UTC

Sen—A Russian Proton rocket failed shortly after liftoff on Thursday, dooming a $200 million telecommunications satellite and raising fresh concerns about the rocket’s reliability to fly a pair of European-led Mars missions.

The rocket blasted off at 21:42 GMT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying the Express AM4R spacecraft built by Europe’s EADS Astrium for the Russian Satellite Communications Co.

The AM4R was to replace Express AM4, which was lost during an August 2011 Proton launch accident.

An investigation into the latest Proton failure is under way, Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos, said Friday.

"We are currently assessing the circumstances. A decision to suspend the launches has not been signed so far. But, naturally, we will not conduct any launches until we establish the cause of the accident," Ostenpenko told Russia’s Interfax news service.

The problem occurred about nine minutes after launch during the firing of the rocket’s third-stage Briz-M engine, Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which manufactures the Proton, said in a statement.

Proton rockets have been flying since 1965, with the latest version, Proton-M, debuting in 2001. Four of the rocket’s last 34 flights have ended in failure. The previous failure, which claimed a trio of Russian navigational satellites in July 2013, was caused by technicians installing accelerometers in the rocket’s control system backwards. Russian officials ordered a sweep of quality control and inspection upgrades and the rocket’s next eight launches were successful.

The European Space Agency is counting on a pair of Proton launches in 2016 and 2018 for its two-part ExoMars life-detection mission. The European-Russian collaboration was signed last year following the United States’ decision to withdraw as a primary partner. Instead, the U.S. space agency NASA is preparing to send a follow-on mission to its ongoing Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover in 2020 with the aim of collecting samples for an eventual return to Earth.