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Russia launches criminal probe after Soyuz rocket makes emergency landing

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The Russian cosmonaut and American astronaut were forced to abort the mission only two minutes into the journey.

An American and a Russian bound for the International Space Station were forced to make an emergency landing when their Soyuz rocket failed shortly after blast-off on Thursday, in a major setback for Russia's space industry.

Astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin were rescued without injuries in Kazakhstan.

Russian investigators said they were launching a criminal probe into the accident, the first such incident on a manned flight in the country's post-Soviet history.

The Russian space industry has suffered a series of problems in recent years, including the loss of a number of satellites and other spacecraft. Officials said they would suspend manned launches in the light of the new accident.

NASA Astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin after the emergency landing.
NASA Astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin after the emergency landing.
AAP

"The emergency rescue system worked, the vessel was able to land in Kazakhstan... the crew are alive," the Russian space agency Roscosmos said in a tweet.

"An accident with the booster, two minutes, 45 seconds," the voice of Ovchinin could be heard saying calmly in live-streamed footage of the launch from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome.

The incident came as the rocket was travelling about 7,563km/h, just 119 seconds into the voyage, according to NASA.

"Shortly after launch, there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft," the US space agency said in a statement.

The Russian rocket, bound for the ISS, takes off from the launch pad at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
The Russian rocket, bound for the ISS, takes off from the launch pad at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
AP

The descent was sharper than usual, meaning the crew was subjected to a greater G-force, but they were prepared for this scenario in training, according to a commentator on NASA's video livestream of the launch.

"We're tightening our seatbelts," Ovchinin said in the video.

"That was a short flight."

A support crew rushed to help the astronauts aboard the capsule that crashed in Kazakhstan.
A support crew rushed to help the astronauts aboard the capsule that crashed in Kazakhstan.
TASS/Getty

Documents seized in probe

Rescue workers reached the site of the emergency landing and evacuated Ovchinin and Hague.

Photos released by Russian government and NASA Twitter accounts later showed the men embracing their families and enjoying a hearty Russian meal back on the ground.

Russia is currently the only country taking crew to and from the ISS.

The European Space Agency, whose astronaut Alexander Gerst is on the ISS, said in a statement that "the aborted launch will have influence on the planning for the near future".

Stefan Beransky, editor of the specialist Aerospatium magazine and author of a book on the Soyuz rocket, said now "the main problem is that there are two fewer people at the station".

"As we wait for the conclusions of a Russian probe, the Soyuz will perhaps be grounded for some time," he told AFP.

Russia's Investigative Committee said a criminal probe would seek to determine whether safety regulations had been violated during construction, causing major damage.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin (L) and NASA astronaut Nick Hague were confident before liftoff
Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin (L) and NASA astronaut Nick Hague were confident before liftoff

"Officials are currently examining the launch site, documents are being seized," it said in a statement.

"Thank God the cosmonauts are alive," Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

There have been two similar Soviet-era accidents involving the Soyuz spacecraft, which are still used to ferry crews to and from the ISS.

In 1975, Oleg Makarov and Vasily Lazarev made a successful emergency landing in Siberia's Altai mountains following problems during booster separation.

Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov survived a fire during launch in Kazakhstan in 1983.

Former military pilots Ovchinin and Hague had been set to join the ESA's Gerst, NASA's Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos following a six-hour flight.

Hole on the ISS

The International Space Station - a rare point of cooperation between Moscow and Washington - has been orbiting the Earth since 1998.

But even the space station has proved a source of controversy in recent weeks.

An undated handout photo made available by NASA showing a hole in a Russian spaceship docked at the ISS.
An undated handout photo made available by NASA showing a hole in a Russian spaceship docked at the ISS.
AP

Russian space officials have said they are investigating whether a hole that caused an oxygen leak on the ISS was drilled deliberately by astronauts.

The hole was detected in August and quickly sealed up, but Russian newspapers said Roscosmos was probing the possibility that US crewmates had sabotaged the space station to get a sick colleague sent back home.

Dmitry Rogozin, a firebrand nationalist politician who this year was appointed by Putin to head Roscosmos, said a "thorough investigation" was needed after the failed launch.

The Russian Soyuz MS-09 crew craft, left, and the Northrop Grumman Cygnus space freighter attached to the International Space Station.
The Russian Soyuz MS-09 crew craft and the Northrop Grumman Cygnus space freighter attached to the International Space Station.
NASA

"It's a dramatic situation but it was possible to avoid a very much worse turn of events," he said in televised remarks.

The politician has clashed with the US, suggesting American astronauts should use trampolines instead of Russian rockets to reach the ISS after Washington imposed sanctions over Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

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