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Russian Rocket Fails, Communications Satellite Destroyed

Russia’s Federal Space Agency says a Proton-M carrier rocket with a Russian-built communications satellite burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere on May 16 after the rocket failed to reach its intended orbit.

A Russian space official said the spacecraft disintegrated in the atmosphere over the Pacific, but there was no exact data yet on where the fragments burned up.

A Roscosmos official said "some fragments" might fall on the Earth.

In Australia, witnesses described seeing what appeared to be large chunks of satellite debris crashing to Earth.

Russian space officials say the rocket’s third-stage engines failed to ignite about nine minutes after lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, sending the payload into a “non-intended orbit.”

Hours later, the space agency announced that the rocket and its expensive Express-AM4R communications satellite had plunged though the dense layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to break up.

The Express-AM4R satellite was meant to provide TV & radio broadcasting, broadband Internet access, multimedia services, telephone services, and mobile communications for 15 years.

Space officials in Moscow said they were calculating an impact area where “some small fragments” of the rocket and satellite could fall to the Earth.

Meanwhile, at about the same time that the satellite was reported to be plummeting through the atmosphere overnight, residents of northeastern Australia reported seeing flaming debris crashing to Earth.

There was no immediate confirmation that the Russian rocket's flight path would have taken it over northeastern Australia.

But experts in Australia said the object did appear to be a falling satellite.

Queensland state police said they received several reports from the northern city of Townsville describing a burning object “about the size of a small plane travelling at a very high speed with a reddish-green flame coming out of the back of it” and “traveling at a very high velocity.”

Townsville resident Kim Vega told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she thinks she saw the moment of impact, describing it as “like an explosion but without a sound.”

Vega said: “It looked like half a dozen jumbo jets falling out of the sky at the same time.”

Owen Bennedick, from Queensland’s privately-run Wappa Falls Observatory, said he thought the object was most likely a satellite falling to Earth and that efforts would be made to find it.

Bennedick said it was travelling slower than a meteorite, suggesting that it “was likely a man-made object” that “burned for a long time.

Based on reporting by ITAR-TASS, Interfax, AFP, and Australia’s ABC-TV

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