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Russia Launches Relay Craft, Commemorative Satellite

Russia launched foursatellites aboard a Rockot booster from the country's northern spaceportFriday, according to news reports.

The 95-foot-tall rocket,capped with a Breeze KM upper stage, lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome at1520 GMT (11:20 a.m. EDT). The converted ballistic missile deployed the fourpayloads into a 900-mile-high orbit less than two hours later, according toRoscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Friday's launch was thefirst flight of a Breeze upper stage since March, when a similar stage used onthe Proton rocket failed and stranded a U.S. communications satellite in auseless orbit. The owners of the AMC 14 satellite declaredthe craft a total loss to redeem a $150 million insurance payout.

Russian investigatorsdetermined the causeof the failure was a ruptured gas duct inside the Breeze M's engine.Engineers said the duct could have burst due to structural erosion, hightemperatures and pressure fluctuations, according to International LaunchServices, the U.S.-based firm responsible for selling Proton rockets to commercialsatellite operators.

ILS officials say they willnot resume commercial Proton flights until further analysis is completed thissummer.

The Rockot was carryingthree Gonets communications satellites and a small spacecraft tocommemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1957launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite.

The Gonets satellites willbe used to relay data and text messages for the Russian military, governmentagencies and private organizations.

Operated by Gonets SatComfor the Russian government, the spacecraft are designed to last up to sevenyears. The satellite fleet can provide communications coverage across Russianterritory.

The mission's otherpayload, called Yubileiny, will broadcast audio messages, imagery, and tones similarto the radio signals transmitted by Sputnik, according to a posting on the Website of NPO PM, a partner in the craft's development.

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