RUSSIA SETS NEW MIR RETURN DATE

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By Richard Macey and Craig Nelson in Moscow

MOSCOW, Russia (March 21, 2001 – Sydney Morning Herald)---The Mir space station’s date with destruction has been reset for Friday afternoon.

Under the latest plan, announced yesterday by the Russian Space Agency, a cargo ship attached to the 135-ton station will fire its rocket engines twice during two consecutive orbits to drop the station to an altitude of 170-180 kilometers (102-108 miles) above Earth. Several hours later, the cargo ship will fire one last time, sending the space station plummeting into the South Pacific.

Tons of wreckage expected to survive the 1,500-degree inferno should splash into the ocean, half way between the southern tips of New Zealand and South America, between 5:20 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sydney time.

If for some reason the rockets cannot be fired, the space agency says Mir, which circles the world 16 times a day, should fall back to Earth as a result of atmospheric friction on Wednesday next week. However, such a re-entry would be uncontrolled, with debris landing anywhere along the flight path.

Experts said a computer failure could throw off the split-second timing required to bring Mir down safely.

"If an engine impulse is insufficient, the station will fly farther and the southern tip of South America could be affected," Mr. Nikolai Anfimov, a Russian space agency spokesman, said on Monday.

Russian mission controllers have repeatedly postponed the station’s destruction so they can use atmospheric drag to reduce the height of Mir’s orbit to just 220 kilometers (132 miles) without having to burn vital rocket fuel.

They originally planned to trigger the return to Earth when it was 250 kilometers (150 miles) up, but decided waiting for the lower orbit would allow more fuel to be kept in reserve for the final engine firing.

At noon yesterday, Mir was on a path ranging from 222 kilometers (133.2 miles) to 228 kilometers (136.8 miles) up, descending about three kilometers (1.8 miles) a day.

Its fall from orbit will take it over Siberia, Japan and ocean well to the northeast of New Zealand.

Parts of the station most likely to survive the fall through the atmosphere include 18 metal flywheels designed to keep Mir pointed in the right direction while in space. Air tanks, as well as the 75-kilogram (165.345-pound) nickel cadmium batteries, should also survive.

Qantas, which has a flight leaving Sydney on Friday for Buenos Aires, said yesterday it was monitoring the situation.

"We have been kept well informed. We do have contingency plans," said a spokeswoman, who declined to say what the plans involved.

Australia’s response to Mir’s return will consist of embassy staff in Moscow relaying news from the Russian space center to the Defense Department’s agency Emergency Management Australia in Canberra.

For additional reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

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