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It was the 44th launch of a Progress supply ship to the space station and the first failure. (NASA/Reuters)

Russian helicopters searched Thursday for the wreckage of the unmanned spaceship that crashed and exploded in a forested area in Siberia.

The supply ship was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan about 1,500 kilometres southwest of the crash site. It fell after the third stage of its booster rocket failed a few minutes into Wednesday's launch, in the Choisky district in Russia's Altai province.

It was the 44th launch of a Progress supply ship to the space station — and the first failure in the nearly 13-year life of the complex.

The spaceship was carrying almost three tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station.

The rocket failed barely a month after NASA's final space shuttle flight. Without the shuttles, NASA now is counting on Russia, Europe and Japan, as well as private U.S. businesses, to keep the station stocked.

The Russians will also be transporting astronauts to the space station until U.S. private industry can pick up the human load.

NASA and its international partners want to keep the space station running until at least 2020.

Accident could delay next crew launch

While the International Space Station has more than enough supplies, the accident threatens to delay the launch of the next crew, just one month away. That's because the upper stage of the unmanned rocket that failed is similar to the ones used to launch astronauts to the station.

On Thursday, Gen. Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Russian Space Forces, said the launch of a satellite that had been planned for Friday was being postponed until early September while the rocket undergoes inspections, Russian news agencies reported. The satellite, part of Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system, was to have blasted off from the Space Forces' launch facility in Plesetsk in far northern Russia.

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, said that the accident "would have no negative influence" on the International Space Station crew because its existing supplies of food, water and oxygen are sufficient. There are six astronauts aboard the station that orbits 350 kilometres above the Earth.

This is the fourth Russian spacecraft lost in the past nine months. In December, a rocket and its payload of three communications satellites fell into the Pacific Ocean after failing to reach orbit. A military satellite was lost in February, and in mid-August the Express-AM4, described by officials as Russia's most powerful telecommunications satellite, was lost.

Russia's General Prosecutor's Office said that about 40 lumberjacks were working in the thick forest of where the Progress ship blew up with a thundering boom. Choisky district administration told the Itar Tass news agency that the lumberjacks returned to their villages safely.