Ageing space station flies on

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The Independent Online
A FIRE did not wreck it. A crash in space could not stop it. And now the ageing space station Mir has had its destruction postponed - because Russia does not have enough money to get rid of it.

Later this week, planners at the Russian space administration had intended to start lowering the orbit of the 100-ton station - which is still manned - by about six kilometres (four miles) from its present position 400 km up, to one just 120km above the Earth.

That would have been the first step of many small orbital drops which would eventually see the station plummeting into the atmosphere, to burn up harmlessly.

The idea was to use a cargo ship now attached to the station firing its rockets to pull the two spacecraft downwards. But the Russians realised there isn't enough money to send another cargo ship - and that the orbit- lowering manoeuvre would use up all the tug's fuel, leaving none for a controlled descent. At worst, with no rockets to control its flight, the Mir station could crashland on a city.

Instead, the space station will be left alone - though administrators said yesterday that they will still lower its orbit later this month. However, arguments are raging about exactly when they will get rid of it. Some say the end could come within three months, but others want to keep the 11-year-old station operating until December 1999.

Either way, it will eventually be allowed to fall into the atmosphere where it will burn up, though some fragments of the 100-ton station are expected to fall into the ocean.

Russia hopes that Mir will still be able to earn more cash by playing host to French and Slovak astronauts. American astronauts gaining expertise for the International Space Station (ISS) have been a prime source of revenue for the Russian space administration. But as the launch of the ISS nears, that flow is drying up.