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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK


New Mir mission announced

Most of Mir will reach the ground

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Russian space officials, unwilling to face the prospect of Mir's death, have announced that an extra crew will visit it later this year.

The move shows that despite their lack of success in finding funds to keep Mir in orbit, they still have not given up hope. But their delaying tactics may put people's lives in danger.

[ image: Mir; in orbit since1986]
Mir; in orbit since1986
The proposed two-man mission will either prepare Mir for future research or, if the money still has not been found, for its demise.

The new timetable was outlined by Yuri Semyonov, president of the company that owns the space station.

Mir's current inhabitants Viktor Afanasyev, Sergei Avdeyev and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere will leave in August and place Mir in automatic mode.

The newly-announced visit would go ahead in December.

Alone in space

But experts are shocked at the plan to dock with Mir after it has been uninhabited for four months.

This is because Mir's position control system breaks down frequently, requiring cosmonauts to fire its thrusters to put it back into the correct orientation in space.

When that has been done the cause of the failure, usually a computer fault, can be repaired.

After several months alone in space it is likely that Mir will be tumbling with its batteries drained and its interior soaked in condensation.

In that state it is possible that a crew would not be able to reach Mir's docking port.

Safe landing

Ensuring that Mir is safely destroyed will be a major headache for Russian space officials.

When it enters the Earth's atmosphere much of Mir, which has a mass of over 100 tonnes, will reach the ground.

It is hoped that it will crash into an uninhabited part of the Pacific but that will require some degree of control over the space station.

If the Russians lose control of Mir then it could come down over populated areas.

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