A civilian Dnepr rocket built from a modified intercontinental ballistic missile failed to carry a clutch of small satellites into orbit Wednesday as it crashed just south of its Central Asian launch site, according to Russian wire reports.
The Dnepr's engine apparently shut down prematurely just after rocketing spaceward from its Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan, Russian space officials told the Interfax News Agency. The rocket was scheduled to launch at 3:43 p.m. EDT (1943 GMT) and reach orbit a short time later.
"The first stage failed to separate on time, it stopped working about 10 minutes earlier, and that is why the engine shut down in emergency mode," Yury Nosenko, deputy head of Russia's Federal Space Agency, told Interfax.
An investigation is underway to determine the root cause of the booster's failure.
"A special commission has been set up to investigate into the circumstances of the crash," Nosenko told Interfax, adding that the Dnepr rocket crashed about 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) south of its launch site. "No damages were caused to populated localities on nearby territories."
Dnepr rocket launches are managed by ISC Kosmotras, a joint effort between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. The boosters are based on converted SS-18 intercontinental missiles and carry three stages to reach orbit.
Each Dnepr booster stands about 111 feet (34 meters) tall and carries a diameter of about 10 feet (three meters).
Today's unsuccessful launch was slated to orbit a fleet of 14 CubeSat microsatellites built by 10 universities around the world. Additional payloads reportedly included a pair of satellites dubbed JAEsats, as well as others called BelKa, Baumanets and UniSat 4.
According to one mission description, the CubeSats were destined for an orbit between 310 and 372 miles (500-600 kilometers) above Earth.
The failed launch attempt comes two weeks after a successful Dnepr launch from Russia's Yasny Launch Base, an active strategic missile facility.
That July 12 liftoff carried the U.S. spacecraft Genesis-1, an inflatable module developed by Las Vegas, Nevada's Bigelow Aerospace as a prototype for future orbital space habitats. Genesis-1 continues to do well, relaying telemetry and images from orbit.
A follow up mission - Genesis-2 - was slated to fly in late 2006 or early 2007, but may be delayed as investigators target the source of today's Dnepr launch failure.
Russia's Interfax News Agency contributed to this report.