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Mir demise causes international high anxiety


(CNN) -- An unlikely member has joined the club of nations voicing concern that a doomed Russian space station could rain down deadly debris within their borders, one in the heart of Europe.

When Moscow sends the space station Mir on a suicidal plunge into the atmosphere later this month, the aging orbiting outpost should break up and send tons of debris into the southwest Pacific Ocean.

But nations near the flight path like Australia and Japan have expressed concern that Mir could slightly stray during its descent, placing their populations at risk.


Now Germany is worried about the possibility that Mir could drift even further off course. An interior ministry document stated that errant debris could land on parts of Germany and neighbor countries in southwestern Europe, according to the German newspaper Bild.

If space authorities tracking Mir become aware of any potential danger, emergency radio announcements would advise citizens to stay indoors, the document said, according to Bild.

The Russian space agency, pushing back Mir's demise by a week or so, said Tuesday that the spacecraft would probably meet its fiery end between March 18 and March 20.

Most of the 130-ton station should burn up in the atmosphere. But one- third of it could survive, including pieces as large as a small car, and smack into the Earth as fast as 0.6 mile (1 km) a second, authorities said.

More than 1,000 fragments are expected to splash down into the watery target between Chile and Australia. But minor fluctuations in the atmospheric conditions could significantly change the course of the falling pieces, as could slight mistakes in calculating the debris trail.

Australian authorities will monitor the spacecraft's demise. Japanese experts will be present in the Russian control room that brings down Mir.

The United States will keep an eye on the spacecraft too, but with no specific emergency plan designed for Mir.

"We have a direct line to the U.S. Space Command, the people tracking satellites. If it looks like a piece is going to fall in the United States, either continental or one of our territories, like American Samoa, we are the interface between state and local officials. We would use the emergency alert system of the United States," said Mark Wolfson, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Russian and U.S. authorities maintain the risks are rather remote. They place the odds at somewhere between one in 1,000 to one in 5,000 that a mishap could occur.

"They've been in space a lot longer than we have. We have a lot of confidence that they can do that (deorbit Mir safely)," said Maj. Perry Nouis, spokesperson for the U.S. Space Command, which monitors orbiting satellites. The military organization will be sharing its data with Russian space controllers guiding Mir's descent.

Moscow has experienced trouble retiring space stations or satellites in the past. In 1991 Mir's predecessor Salyut 7 plunged into the Andes Mountains. And in 1978 wreckage from a Soviet military satellite crashed into the Canadian Arctic. The United States fared little better in 1979 when its long abandoned Sky Lab rained debris over western Australia.

This final flight should be different. "Those were not controlled. This will be a controlled deorbit," Nouis said.


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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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