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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Farmer Says Space Debris Killed Horses

ReutersA television image of the site where a Proton-M rocket carrying a satellite crashed near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.
Federal Space Agency officials are likely in for an angry reception when they arrive in the Altai republic this weekend to investigate a farmer's claims that falling space debris caused the death of four of his horses.

The horses, belonging to Sergei Kazantsev, were poisoned by traces of toxic fuel from debris that landed early last year on grazing land the head of Altai's Ust-Kansky region, Leonid Maikov, said by telephone Thursday.

The space agency, which has paid compensation for the damage caused by launches from the nearby Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, will look into the claims when investigators arrive in the remote region on Saturday, agency spokesman Alexander Vorobyov said.

"We are open minded," Vorobyov said. "If people have well-founded claims and have suffered physical harm then we will look into it."

"But many people try to use these incidents for material gain," he added.

Attempts to reach the farmer, Kazantsev, were unsuccessful.

Vorobyov said the complaint would likely be rejected because Emergency Situations Ministry officials had already completed tests and found no readings of heightened contamination levels in the area.

The space agency officials will also investigate a separate claim made by local sheep farmer Boris Urmatov.

Urmatov, who could not be reached Thursday, plans to file a lawsuit against the agency for 1 million rubles, about $42,000, for pain and suffering after a 4.5-square-meter chunk of debris landed near his house on Feb. 5, Maikov said.

Vorobyov said the space junk was most likely a section of a Proton-M rocket that took off from Baikonur.

The Siberian republic of Altai, on the edge of the Kazakh steppes, is a magnet for space junk because of its proximity to the launch site, which is rented by Russia. Vorobyov refused to comment on Russian media reports that more than 2,500 tons of rocket fragments have crashed to Earth there over the last 40 years.

The Federal Space Agency and Altai authorities have designated a strip of land where rocket debris is supposed to fall, Vorobyov said, adding that people who live in the zone are given at least 24 hours' notice of falling debris, he said.

Only those outside the zone are entitled to any compensation for damage caused by the launches.

Both incidents occurred outside the zone, Maikov said.

He said the farmers had support from his administration and the local community. In 2007, Maikov said, 27 people in the Ust-Kansky region were hospitalized with cancer-related illnesses they said were linked to contamination from falling debris.

A resident of Korgan, a village in the region, received 10,000 rubles, about $350 at the time, from the agency when debris landed in his yard in 2000, killing a cow. Emergency Situations Ministry officials in Altai refused to comment Thursday.

Proton-series rockets jettison stages after they have completed their burn and run out of fuel, with much of the material typically landing in the designated area in the Altai republic.

In cases where there is a rocket malfunction, the procedure is for ground control to destroy it, often spreading debris outside the expected area.

In September 2007, a Proton-M rocket carrying a Japanese communications satellite malfunctioned around two minutes after takeoff, crashing near the Kazakh city of Zhezkazgan.

No one was injured in the incident, but Russia paid Kazakhstan more than $2 million in compensation after it emerged that the rocket had been filled with higher-than-permissible levels of toxic heptyl fuel.