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Human error blamed for toxic Russian rocket explosion

So, which way is up then?

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Russia's latest rocket mishap, which saw three of the Glonass satellites needed to upgrade the country's global positioning system destroyed in a fiery inferno, is reported to have been the fault of a technician not knowing which way is up.

After sorting through the wreckage, the investigating team has found a flight control system's sensors were put in the wrong way around. They are marked with an arrow indicating which end of the sensor goes up, but the technician involved seems to have missed this.

"The angular velocity sensors were wired up with the wrong polarity. Therefore, the rocket was orientated incorrectly," a source close to the investigation told the Russian news agency Interfax.

Last week's Proton-M launch failed after 17 seconds as the rocket veered out of control. It detonated a few miles away from the launch site in an enormous explosion, spreading 600 tons of toxic heptyl, amyl, and kerosene rocket fuel over the landscape and creating a poisonous cloud that passed over populated areas.

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Other reasons for the crash reportedly being investigated are that the rocket launched early and that the engines overcompensated to ensure lift-off, damaging the motors due to excess stress and causing loss of control.

One Russian blogger is even suggesting it was a staged failure in the style of Capricorn One, to cover up the fact that the latest Glonass satellites aren’t fully functional yet.

Nevertheless it's an embarrassing failure for the Russian space agency, not to mention a costly one. The Glonass satellites are valued at $200m, but the damage to the Proton-M's reputation could prove more expensive in the long run.

This is the fourth rocket failure for the Proton-M and the second in less than a year. The market for orbital delivery is becoming a lot more competitive, with SpaceX doing well and the European's Ariane 5 booster enjoying an excellent safety record. The Russians will be taking a long, hard look at the program, government ministers have said.

As for the technician who reportedly misassembled the flight system, El Reg expects he'll currently be enjoying a new role counting trees, an old Russian term for being sent to an outpost in the wilds of Siberia. ®

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