Doomed 'Mir' will ditch in the Pacific ocean - possibly

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Russia's once invincible space scientists are prompting global jitters as they prepare for what may be their last major independent operation: jettisoning the football field-sized Mir space station into an uninhabited section of the Pacific ocean - hopefully.

Russia's once invincible space scientists are prompting global jitters as they prepare for what may be their last major independent operation: jettisoning the football field-sized Mir space station into an uninhabited section of the Pacific ocean - hopefully.

The ability of the disaster-plagued ex-Soviet space programme to carry off the complex manoeuvre safely is in some doubt after three serious accidents in barely two months, including an episode last week in which the 140-ton Mir slipped its leash and was flying out of control for more than 20 hours.

Also last week a Cyclone-3 rocket with six satellites on top of it exploded a couple hours after blasting off from Plesetsk military cosmodrome in north-west Russia, raining potentially hazardous debris over the Arctic. Three of the objects aboard the ship were Russian military spy satellites, which are known to be powered sometimes by nuclear batteries that contain deadly plutonium. In November a Russian Kosmos-3M launcher crashed with a $60m American Quickbird-1 communications satellite aboard shortly after being launched from Plesetsk.

The currently unmanned Mir, Earth's largest permanently orbiting artificial satellite, fell abruptly silent on Christmas Day, blanking out screens at mission control and forcing frantic ground controllers to search for it using telescopes.

"It was a very serious failure, one of the most serious failures when we've lost communications," said Vladimir Solovyov, Mir's mission control chief. Though the link was restored the following day, Russian space officials now say they will send a special unmanned cargo ship to supervise the delicate mission to terminate Mir, scheduled for 27 to 28 February.

It is planned to tip the craft gently out of its orbit some 200 miles above the Earth and send it plunging into an empty section of the South Pacific, about 1,000 miles from Australia. Though most of the vessel is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, fiery chunks of metal weighing up to 1,500lb may crash into the ocean at supersonic speeds.

That is, if everything goes according to plan. "No one has ever resolved a task of this magnitude," says Nikolai Ivanov, head of navigation at Mir ground control. "We don't know how such a manoeuvre will work out in practice."

At its launch in 1986, Mir was the crown jewel of an ambitious Soviet space programme meant to challenge the West for control of the cosmos. But the station is now nine years beyond its planned expiry date. During its years in service, Mir has experienced some 1,600 serious technical failures, including a fire, collision with a supply ship and a series of harrowing computer crashes that left the station without power or oxygen for days at a time.

Over the past decade Russia has repeatedly pronounced the Mir project dead, but always found reasons to revive it. Russians regard the sputtering station with perverse pride and are fond of comparing it with the rickety Soviet-made Zhiguli cars that still jam Moscow roads.

"The Mir station is like a symbol of Russian perseverance and survival," says Yevgeny Tin, a researcher with the science commission of the Duma, the lower house of parliament. "Yes, the Mir is leaking air and Russia is leaking capital, but they both stay afloat somehow."

In its latest incarnation, the space station was to have been transformed into an orbiting hotel and movie studio. A Dutch-based corporation, MirCorp, had lined up a wealthy American, Dennis Tito, who was willing to pay $20m for a visit. The company was also reportedly negotiating with the US television network NBC to produce a game show, Destination Mir, which would feature a space voyage as the main prize. Even after last week's brush with disaster, Russia's powerful Communists appealed to the Kremlin to find funds to resuscitate the ageing space icon.

Former Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya said in a radio interview that the decision to ditch the Mir was a concession to US demands that Russia should concentrate its meagre resources on helping to build the 16-nation International Space Station.

"The Mir is our own project, and it is in perfectly serviceable condition," she said. "There is no good reason to retire it." But experts say accumulated chemical corrosion, metal fatigue and hull punctures have left it unfit for further service. In fact, most former Soviet space assets are in a state of advanced ruin.

"The past 10 years have already seen failures of equipment on board spacecraft increase by more than three times," Valery Grin, commander of Russia's military space forces, said recently. Of the 90 military satellites under his control, he said, more than 80 per cent were well beyond their designated work life.

Space officials insist the decision to drop Mir into the Pacific is final, and pledge they will take every precaution to see the huge, hurtling fireball does not lead to any unscripted catastrophe. Yury Koptev, the Space Agency's chief said: "We must control events, not sit back and pray for good luck.

"If the Mir spins out of control tomorrow, the President and the government will have to face the entire world and explain where it would fall and what damage would be inflicted."