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Mir death sentence delayed


(CNN) -- The doomed Russian space station Mir will likely plunge into a watery grave on March 22, two days later than previously announced, Russian space officials said Wednesday.

Splashdown in the South Pacific is now expected on March 22 at about 1:20 a.m. EST. The final leg of the station's 15-year odyssey will begin roughly six hours before then.

Flight controllers will command a series of three rocket firings to bring the station down in the ocean halfway between New Zealand and Chile.

The first two will alter the orbiting outpost's nearly circular orbit to an elliptical one, according to Rosaviakosmos, the Russian space agency.

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    The final one will begin as the station passes over the place where its first component was launched on February 20, 1986 -- the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan.

    Most of the eight-module complex should burn up in the atmosphere but about 1,500 pieces are expected to survive, including a few the size of a small automobile.

    The braking engine burn should prompt Mir's fiery re-entry into the atmosphere. The rockets designed to guide the demise are on a Russian Progress cargo ship that docked with Mir in January.

    Russian space officials said they have just enough fuel on board the Progress to nudge Mir out of orbit and into its deadly descent path. They have only one chance to get it right.

    Should the Progress engines fail to fire for the desired length of time, debris from the falling Mir could strike land.

    A burn that succeeds in producing only 50 percent of the expected power, for example, could send pieces raining down on Europe, according to sources inside the Russian and U.S. space programs.

    One that delivers 25 percent could prompt an uncontrolled descent and expand the swath over which surviving debris might fall to most of the middle latitudes, home to 5 billion of the planet's 6 billion people.

    Russian experience

    Ironically, Moscow is one of the few major population centers not under Mir's track. If the Progress engines fails completely, Mir is expected to fall from orbit on its own March 28, plus or minus 5 days.

    The 135-ton Mir is the heaviest man-made satellite ever to fly in space. The moon is the only object orbiting the Earth with more mass.

    The Russians have a lot of experience bringing down spacecraft in a controlled fashion in the South Pacific. Over the years, they have safely brought down six Salyut space stations and 80 spent space freighters.

    In 1991, the Salyut 7 space station was out of fuel and out of control when it returned to Earth. It lost altitude faster than expected because of increased solar flare activity. Parts of that station landed in South America.

    In 1978, a Soviet spy satellite dropped radioactive pieces on Canada's northern territories in another uncontrolled re-entry.

    The U.S.-made Skylab was launched without the capability to return to Earth in a controlled manner. Part of the 100-ton station landed in a remote stretch of western Australia.

    Mir splashdown date pushed back to March 22
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    March 13, 2001
    Mir demise causes international high anxiety
    March 6, 2001
    Last rendezvous for Mir
    January 27, 2001
    Beginning of the end for Mir
    January 24, 2001

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    4:30pm ET, 4/16

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