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BBC Science's Helen Sewell
The ship is carrying two tonnes of fuel
 real 28k

Tuesday, 1 February, 2000, 10:08 GMT
Supply ship heads to Mir

Mir is leaking air Mir is leaking air

The Russians successfully launched a Progress supply ship on Tuesday - the first step to getting the Mir space station up and running again.

The unmanned supply ship was sent into orbit on a Soyuz booster rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It is now on an automatic path to Mir.

The two craft should link up at 0759 GMT on Thursday, 3 February.

The supply ship is carrying oxygen to be used during the forthcoming visit by a Russian crew.

Mir has been unmanned for six months during which its future has been very uncertain. If Mir can be revived, and that depends upon new sources of private Western funding, then we could be about to witness a turning point in the Russian manned space effort.

US concerns

However, Nasa will be watching Mir's next few weeks with increasing uncertainty about Russia's commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) for which it is obliged by treaty to provide critical components.

Last week, controllers at Mir's Mission Control Centre near Moscow activated Mir's control computers and gyroscopes. The station's slow spin was halted and it was positioned so that its solar panels pointed towards the Sun.

Mir was also boosted into a higher orbit.

The current plan is that on 1 March two cosmonauts will blast off in the Soyuz TM-30 spacecraft to re-inhabit the space station. Officials say that their mission will last "at least 45 days".

The crew will attempt to find a small but troublesome leak. Before the last crew left last year, they pumped the station up to 10% above normal air pressure. Since then it has slowly declined to about 70% of normal pressure. Air is now seeping out of the station at a rate of about 1% per week.

More oxygen

The Progress supply ship has enough air to bring Mir back to normal, and compensate for the leak for four months. During that time, the crew will use a new set of tools to locate the leak and hopefully seal it.

There is a spare seat in the three-man Soyuz spacecraft that takes the cosmonauts into space - cosmonauts Zalyotin and Kaleri will occupy only two.

The Russians have tried to interest the European Space Agency in sending up a European astronaut, but they asked for too much money.

Another possible passenger is a cosmonaut "actor" Vladimir Steklov. He is involved in a movie project by Russian director Yuri Kara. He would play the role of a lone cosmonaut who refuses to return to Earth. But Kara is reportedly still seeking sponsors.

The Russian government must find more money to keep Mir in space beyond August. At one time they said it took $250 million a year to keep Mir functioning but they recently reduced this to $50 million. This is a much more realistic budget and well within the range of private funding.

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See also:
20 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Mir stays in space - official
14 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Mir may become space hotel
13 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
New crew to visit Mir
11 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
New delay for space station
27 May 99 |  Sci/Tech
No Mir flight for British businessman
16 Sep 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mir: The end

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