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Rising cash toll may bring Mir down to earth

The Mir space station may finally meet its end next year, brought down not by technical problems but the sheer cost of running it, Russia's deputy finance minister has hinted.

As the three astronauts on board the orbiting station prepared for a spacewalk tomorrow to restore power and make repairs, Vladimir Petrov, first deputy finance minister said: "The task is pressing. We must remove Mir from orbit. This will be done next year." He added, "You see, there have already been a series of breakdowns, one failure, another failure."

However, Valery Ryumin, who heads Russia's co-operation on Mir with the United States' space agency, Nasa, said: "A bureaucrat [Petrov] can say whatever nonsense he wants. I don't even want to hear this nonsense."

Mr Petrov's comments were made to reporters on Tuesday for release last night, to coincide with a government discussion of the 1998 budget, which will be sent to the Russian parliament by next Tuesday. That leaves the distinct possibility that the comments were part of a bargaining plan to try to reduce spending.

Exact figures on Mir's operating costs are not available, and observers say Russian military control of some aspects of the programme make it hard to calculate.

But Mir does earn valuable foreign currency: the US agreed to pay Russia $478m (pounds 300m), mostly for Mir-related activities, under a December 1993 agreement to last until 1998. The European Space Agency (ESA) paid $50m for two joint missions involving Mir in 1994 and 1995.

Russian space officials have said they intend to keep Mir in orbit at least until 2000, and Russian policymakers have not previously advocated its retirement.

If and when it is abandoned, it will eventually fall to earth. Though most of it should burn up in the atmosphere, large pieces are expected to survive.

Mir, launched in 1986, is the last element left from the Soviet space programme.

On 25 June, the station experienced the worst accident in its history when a supply ship collided with it, depressurising one of the six modules. It has suffered a series of smaller failures in recent weeks.

Russia is participating in the creation of an international space station, the first segment of which is scheduled for a June 1998 launch.

Yesterday afternoon, ground control said everything on Mir was fine: the station had regained its precise alignment with the Sun, recharged its solar batteries and switched on its main oxygen generator.

n A teenage Irish radio ham yesterday made contact with Michael Foale, the British-born astronaut on board Mir. Revere Richardson, 19, from Kilkenny, said Mr Foale was in "very, very good humour indeed" and showing no sign of strain. He spoke to the space station on a VHF link from his "radio shack-stroke-bedroom" as it passed over Ireland.