A man from Kazakhstan has been killed as a result of a fire caused by falling space debris, and another hospitalized, in what may be the first such death ever reported.
The former has been named as Yuri Khatyushin, and the latter as Vyacheslav Tyts. They were part of a clean-up operation for the launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket on Wednesday, June 14. This had launched the Progress MS-06 cargo spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome towards the International Space Station (ISS).
Following the launch, some falling debris from the rocket appears to have started a fire on the Kazakh steppe when it crashed into the ground, according to the Kazakh Tengrinews website. Debris from Russian launches is purposefully left to fall onto the ground. The blaze was reported by AFP to have been 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) across.
The two men were employed by Russian rocket company NPO Mashinostroyeniya to clean up the debris from the rocket. But while attempting to extinguish the blaze, their truck was engulfed in flames due to a strong gust of wind.
A statement from NPO Mashinostroyeniya said the company “will provide all necessary assistance to the families of the deceased and the (injured) victim.” Tyts is currently being treated for his injuries in the town of Zhezkazgan.
The location of the town near to where the fire started. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is to the West
The fire had begun at about 9.25am EDT (2.25pm BST) on Wednesday, following the launch about 15 minutes earlier. Debris from the rocket is thought to have ignited dry grass in the planned fallout zone from the rocket.
"According to the available information, the Kamaz truck driver, an employee of JSC NPO Mashinostroyenia, has died while extinguishing the fire,” a report obtained by Russian news site TASS read.
“JSC NPO Mashinostroyenia (not affiliated to Roscosmos) oversees maintenance of the drop zones. The fire engulfed the Kamaz vehicle after a particularly strong gust of wind.”
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, noted that the fire was extinguished by the evening, and there was no threat to anyone else nearby.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is used by Russia for the majority of its launches at the moment, a cause for contention among locals. While other countries like the US launch over open water, where debris is discarded, Russian debris falls onto the steppes of Kazakhstan.
However, Russia is currently finishing construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. This new launch facility, which has already seen one launch in April 2016, will be used for some of Russia’s launches from 2018 onwards, ending their reliance on Kazakhstan.
No deaths caused by man-made space debris have ever been reported before. Last year, a man in India was claimed to be the first person killed by a meteorite, although that claim was contested.