MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia failed to put a communications satellite into designated orbit Sunday, in the latest setback for the once-pioneering space industry, officials said. The latest mishap is believed to be linked to a malfunction in the Proton-M rocket’s Briz-M booster stage that earlier this year apparently led President Vladimir Putin to fire the chief of a key aerospace bureau. “On December 9, during the placing of Yamal-402 satellite vehicle into designated orbit, the separation of the satellite vehicle occurred four minutes ahead of schedule,” Russia’s Roskosmos state space agency said in a statement. The space agency added it had taken control of the satellite and was looking to fix the problem.

It said later Sunday that all the systems of the satellite were “functioning in a regular mode” and the next attempt to put the Yamal-402 into orbit would be made later Sunday.

The satellite had been launched by a Proton-M carrier rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1313 GMT Saturday.

“The situation is unpleasant but not catastrophic,” a source in the space industry told the Interfax news agency, adding the satellite could still reach the designated orbit with the help of its own engines.

However that operation would shorten the satellite’s life cycle in space, the source was quoted as saying.

Interfax added that the satellite may need three days to correct its orbit.

The Yamal-402 satellite was made for Gazprom Space Systems, a space and telecommunication arm of natural gas giant Gazrpom, to provide communications for Russia, Western and Central Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Russia’s space programme has been beset by a litany of technical problems which have resulted in the loss of a half-dozen satellites and vehicles over the past year, including a Progress cargo vessel bound for the International Space Station.

Space experts linked the past failures to put satellites into orbit to persisting problems with the Proton-M rocket’s Briz-M booster stage.

“The interconnection has been recognised even by Roskosmos management because the general director of this organisation, Vladimir Popovkin, ordered to conduct additional checks into and even temporarily suspend the work of these booster stages,”

space analyst Yury Karash said on Ekho of Moscow radio.

The latest space mishap comes after two satellites were lost

after the unsuccessful launch of a Proton-M rocket on August 6, which missed the correct orbit.

The telecommunications satellites - the Russian Express-MD2 and the Indonesian Telkom-3 - never made contact.

A commission later found a problem with Briz-M, the upper-stage used with the Proton-M rocket, and ordered inspections on the entire Briz-M production line, putting future launches on hold.

In September, President Putin fired Vladimir Nesterov, the chief of a key state-run aerospace bureau, the Khrunichev space centre, which produces and launches the Proton rocket.

A source at the Baikonur cosmodrome told Interfax that the rocket’s failure to put the satellite into space may delay the launch of another satellite, Satmex 8, set for December 27, until 2013.

The source said a special task force would have to further look into the work of the Briz-M booster stage so the scheduled launch of a Proton-M rocket would have to be suspended.