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Soyuz liftoff
A Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. (Roscosmos Photo)

Russia’s Meteor-M 2-1 weather satellite and 18 nanosatellites went missing today after their launch aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East.

Among the lost spacecraft were 10 satellites that were supposed to be put in orbit for San Francisco-based Spire Global and become part of the company’s Lemur-2 Earth observation network. Two remote-sensing satellites from Astro Digital, a Silicon Valley space venture, were lost as well.

The launch failure is likely to raise new questions about the capabilities of the Russian space program and its controversial multibillion-dollar effort to create the Vostochny launch complex as an alternative to the decades-old Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Roscosmos space agency reported that today’s liftoff proceeded as planned, using a Soyuz-2-1b variant of Russia’s workhorse rocket. But it said contact was lost after the Fregat upper stage separated for deployment of the satellites. “The information is being analyzed,” Roscosmos said in a statement.

In separate reports, Interfax and Space Intel Report quoted unnamed sources as saying speculation about the cause of the failure focused on an erroneous command in the Fregat’s control software.

The Meteor-M satellite was supposed to become part of Russia’s constellation of weather satellites in low Earth orbit. In addition to the satellites from Spire Global and Astro Digital, six other CubeSat spacecraft from Russia, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Japan were being carried as secondary payloads.

Today’s launch was the second to be conducted from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, which has been under construction for six years. The project has weathered a long-running series of reports about corruption and construction setbacks.

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