PACIFIC OCEAN FEELS SMALL TO FOLK IN SPACE-JUNK TARGET ZONE

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SYDNEY, Australia (March 22, 2001 – New Zealand Herald/Reuters)---From Conny Martin's standpoint, the vast empty expanse of the Pacific Ocean where flaming chunks of Russia's Mir space station may find their watery grave does not feel empty at all.

German-born Martin is one of 2,800 people living on Chile's Easter Island, a triangle of volcanic rock in the ocean, 3,200 kilometers (1,920 miles) from the nearest big population centers in South America or Tahiti - and potentially in Mir's flight path.

"As we are the most affected ones, we get the least information of all of you," the tour operator said yesterday in a telephone interview from the remote outcrop famous for its mysterious, giant stone heads.

"It's business as usual here and we're just hoping that nothing will land on us. What can we do? We can't move out of the way," she said, uneasy at the thought of 130 tons of red-hot space junk crashing down from above tomorrow.

Moscow's latest plan is to bring the 15-year-old space station down before 7:00 p.m. (New Zealand Time), somewhere around 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) m east of New Zealand's southern tip.

Two-thirds of the accident-prone Mir should burn up on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

But debris - some possibly the size of a small car - is expected to be scattered over an area 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) to 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) long and 200 kilometers (120 miles) wide, pounding into the ground with enough force to drill two meters 1.2 feet) into reinforced concrete.

Moscow has taken out $US 200 million in insurance in case its plans to dump Mir harmlessly in the Pacific go awry.

South Pacific microstates, from Easter Island to Fiji, are on alert.

Job Esau of the National Disaster Management Office in Vanuatu, population 182,000, said the authorities planned to issue a bulletin last night and would hold meetings with community leaders today.

Fiji warned its 800,000 people on Tuesday to stay in their houses after tonight, not to set out to sea and to avoid any "foreign objects."

Japan has issued similar advice.

Australia and New Zealand are monitoring Mir's path and have contingency plans in place, while airlines will be told of the space station's position in case they have to reschedule Pacific flights.

Tahiti was paying scant attention to Mir's fiery demise as the French territory was distracted by local elections.

Ulafala Aiavao, of the 16-member South Pacific Forum, said Mir's splashdown was likely to become a rallying point for island state opposition to large countries turning the Pacific Ocean into a "space junk graveyard."

Fiji, meanwhile, continued to host a U.S.-Russian expedition to record Mir's final moments on high-definition television.

Film of the event should be broadcast a few hours later on the Internet.

For additional reports from The New Zealand Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ New Zealand Herald.

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