The failed launch of a Russian Proton-M rocket that took place yesterday in western Kazakhstan has exploded (pun intended) all over the internet, and one very unfortunate patch of grass. What we didn't know yesterday — and might have a handle on today — is what exactly caused this spectacular fireball of failure that was meant to be a run-of-the-mill satellite launch.
The entire flight of the Russian rocket lasted just 32 seconds, and much of what can be discerned about the failure has been derived from the numerous videos which captured the doomed launch. By examining this footage, as well as the flight's telemetry, a preliminary cause of the rocket's failure has emerged.
Every Proton-M rocket has a cluster of six engines which power its first stage of flight. These must all fire at precisely the same time and deliver the correct amount of thrust for the rocket to launch properly. And at ignition, everything seemed to be going as planned. Then, one of the six engines powering the rocket swiveled to the side. The swiveling motion is actually a design feature of the Proton-M rocket — one which allows all six of the engines to adjust gradually so as to best carry the rocket into orbit.
But the failing engine swung much too far to the side, basically enacting a PIT maneuver on the rest of the rocket. The rocket's remaining five engines likely tried to counter the horizontal thrust from the failing one, but to no avail. Bleeding off vertical thrust and listing dramatically, the rocket eventually began to break up before exploding.
All of which was pretty epic if you were standing in the fields surrounding launch, like the guy who filmed the vid below. Russian investigators are still combing through the wreckage for further clues as to the rocket's demise, but with a fireball like that, there may not be much evidence to gather.