Russia 'grounds Soyuz rockets' after space crash

25th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia has grounded its Soyuz rockets after a space ship carrying tonnes of cargo for the International Space Station (ISS) crashed into Siberia shortly after blast-off, an official said Thursday.

The failed launch of the unmanned Progress capsule was a spectacular blow for Russia which had proudly become the sole nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS after the withdrawal of the US space shuttle in July.

"A decision has been taken to halt the launch of Soyuz carrier rockets until the reasons for the accident become clear," an unnamed Russian official told the Interfax news agency.

There was no immediate official comment on the report from the Russian space agency Roskosmos. Soyuz rockets are used to launch the unmanned Progress cargo vehicles as well as the Soyuz manned capsules for the ISS.

The next manned flight to the ISS -- currently staffed by a six-person multinational crew -- is scheduled for September 22 and a cargo vessel with new supplies is due to take off on October 28.

The ISS depends on the Progress deliveries for basic supplies such as food and water but both Russian and US officials took care to dispel suggestions that the accident may prompt an emergency evacuation of the ISS crew.

Space officials from both sides said the team -- which besides three Russians includes two US astronauts and a spaceman from Japan -- had at least two months of supplies of food and other basics.

But Roskosmos removed all reference to future missions from its official website, leaving an ominous-looking black space where the listing is usually found.

Roskosmos said Thursday that it was fully committed to supplying the ISS with both cargo and crew despite the setback.

The agency said Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin held an emergency overnight meeting in which he requested "additional proposals on ways to provide support for the International Space Station and unconditionally meet" Russia's commitments.

The Russian news agencies said space officials had also informed ISS commander Andrei Borisenko of the accident and that the team took the news calmly. "The cosmonauts received this news with understanding," a Russian official told Interfax.

Local officials said fragments of the craft crashed into Russia's Siberian region of Altai on the border with Mongolia and China -- a remote region of soaring mountains and poorly accessible by road.

"The explosion was so powerful that it shattered windows nearly 100 kilometres (60 miles) away," said the region's Choya district head Alexander Borisov.

The Progress was the fourth failed launch of a capsule or satellite by Russia since December last year when three satellites for its prized new GLONASS system crashed into the Pacific Ocean after launch.

This was followed by the loss of a new military satellite in February while only last week a satellite for Internet and digital television across Russia was lost after being put into the wrong orbit after launch.

That failure led to Roskosmos grounding its Proton-M carrier rockets.

"The series of launch accidents points to a deep crisis," the respected Kommersant business daily said on its front page. "More and more of Russia's craft are failing to reach orbit," it said.

"Now the whole world will watch our manned launches with bated breath," Ivan Moiseyev, head of research at the institute of space policy, warned in Izvestia daily.

"If we have accidents more than twice a year, that's already an unacceptable level for the space industry."

Igor Lisov, an expert for the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, dismissed fears over future Soyuz flights to the ISS, but conceded the latest failure was a red flag, showing up inadequate technical checks.

"After they have found out and eliminated the causes, the Soyuz will fly again, undoubtedly," he told AFP.

"But this is an alarm call. It shows that the system of checks has failed. Previously they would not have let defects fall through the net."

© 2011 AFP

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