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Russia launches new Soyuz rocket

Matryoshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, depicting the International Space Station (ISS) crew members (L to R) Italian astronaut Luca Par
Matryoshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, depicting the International Space Station (ISS) crew members (L to R) Italian astronaut Luca Par

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia successfully launched an upgraded version of its Soviet-design Soyuz rocket on Saturday, the Defence Ministry said, giving a boost to the country's troubled space program.

The launch of the Soyuz 2.1v rocket, which features a new engine and digital guidance system, had originally been planned for the beginning of 2012 but was postponed due to an accident during testing which caused engine damage, Interfax reported. It was then scheduled to be launched earlier this week but was delayed again, Interfax reported.

The lightweight launch vehicle blasted off Saturday afternoon from Russia's Plesetsk launch pad in the northwest Arkhangelsk region.

A spokesman said it was a debut launch for the rocket to place a scientific earth-monitoring satellite into orbit.

The Soyuz 2.1v is the latest addition to Russia's Soyuz family of rockets, which has become the world's most frequently used booster since its first launch in 1966. In 1961, a prototype of the Soyuz, Vostok, carried the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. Today, its descendants are the only way to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Despite an improved budget, Moscow's space program has suffered a series of humiliating launch failures in recent years that industry veterans blame on poor management, the legacy of a decade of crimped spending and a brain drain.

(Reporting by Megan Davies and Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by David Evans)

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