Mir Causes Anxiety In South Pacific

Wednesday, March 21, 2001
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. Martin is one of 2,800 people living on Chile's Easter Island, a triangle of volcanic rock marooned in the ocean, 3,200 km (2,000 miles) from the nearest big population centers in South America or Tahiti -- and potentially in Mir's flightpath. "As we are the most affected ones, we get the least information of all of you," the tour operator said.

"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 later this week. Moscow's latest plan is to bring the 15-year-old space station down on Friday, somewhere around 3,000 km (1,860 miles) 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 5,000-6,000 km (3,100-3,700 miles) long and 200 km (125 miles) wide, pounding into the ground with the force to drill two meters into reinforced concrete. The space station fell as planned on Wednesday to within a few hundred meters of the orbit at which mission control will begin to steer it toward Earth, a spokesman said.

Adding a bit of levity to the situation, U.S. fast food restaurant Taco Bell has floated a 40 ft. x 40 ft. "target" in the South Pacific, promising to reward every person in the United States with a free Taco in the event a part of the Mir junk hits the mark. As remote as the chance is, Taco Bell has reportedly ensured itself just in case.

Mir's controllers had been waiting for it to glide to an orbit of 220 km (137 miles) so that they can turn on its guidance systems and steer it back to Earth on Friday. "The average altitude of the station is now, 220.2 km," the spokesman said. "Everything is going according to plan. Tomorrow (Thursday) at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) we will start to orient the station and switch on its controls." Officials plan to fire a first engine burst at 3:33 a.m. Moscow time (0033 GMT) on Friday, followed by a second burst at 5 a.m. and a final one at 8 a.m. The engine bursts are aimed at slowing Mir and send it falling at the precise moment.

Moscow has taken out $200 million in insurance in case its plans to dump Mir harmlessly in the Pacific go awry. But from Easter Island to Fiji, residents and governments of the South Pacific micro states were on alert. Job Esau of the National Disaster Management Office in Vanuatu, a tropical paradise of 182,000 people, said the authorities planned to issue a bulletin on Wednesday night and would hold meetings with community leaders on Thursday.

"The things we are going to look at are keeping ships in harbor, people remaining at home," Esau said. Fiji warned its 800,000 people on Tuesday to stay in their houses after Thursday night, not to set out to sea and to avoid any "foreign objects." Japan has issued a similar advisory. Australia and New Zealand are monitoring the path of Mir and have contingency plans in place, officials said, while airlines would be informed of the space station's position in case they had to reschedule flights across the Pacific. Tahiti was paying scant attention to Mir's fiery demise as the French territory was distracted by local elections. But government officials privately complained about Russia using the Pacific as a dumping ground, residents said.

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." "Mir will raise the profile of that issue," Aiavao said from the Forum's headquarters in the Fijian capital Suva. Fiji, meanwhile, continued to play palm-fringed host to a U.S.-Russian expedition to record the space station's final moments on high-definition television. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Sergey Avdeyev, the only human being to have toasted the New Year three times in orbit and with 747 days in space under his belt, said he felt a great sadness that Mir could not have been kept for posterity as a museum. "Of course I am very sad. This is a very sorry moment but life is life," Avdeyev said. The flight engineer was part of a 48-strong group of scientists, space journalists, cameramen and fee-paying passengers who plan to fly two aircraft from Fiji to within a few 100 km (miles) of Mir's re-entry into the atmosphere. Film of Mir's final moments should be broadcast a few hours later on the Internet at www.mirreentry.com. -- (Reuters)

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