MOSCOW — A rocket carrying Russian satellites but no humans veered off course and crashed a few seconds after liftoff Tuesday, sending a cloud of highly toxic orange fumes toward the Kazakh city of Baikonur only 50 miles away.
Fears that the toxic cloud would waft into Baikonur were eased later in the day, however, after heavy rains dispersed the fumes.
Photographs posted online had shown the ominous cloud stretching over buildings near the launching pad, and residents of Baikonur, population 70,000, had been instructed to stay indoors.
The Proton-M rocket rose just above its launching tower at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, wobbled, and then tipped over into the desert in a ball of fire.
The short flight Tuesday was the fourth Proton failure in three years, and it was sure to raise safety questions among NASA officials and Western commercial clients of Russia’s space services.
In recent years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has relied on Russia to provide transportation for US astronauts headed to the International Space Station. But those space flights have used a Soyuz rocket that has a strong safety record.
The Russian space agency did not immediately offer an explanation for the crash.
There were no reported injuries at the site of the accident, an area that Russia rents for rocket launchings. But the short flight, instead of a journey to space, made for one of the most prominent rocket disasters in Russia’s space program in recent years.
“According to the preliminary estimates from the Russian side, there is no destruction and there are no casualties,” the Kazakh space agency, KazCosmos, said in a statement, according to Reuters.
The crash was another setback for the Proton rocket, a booster for the Russian space program that is used for commercial and military payloads.