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Mir: 8-miles from burn-up

MOSCOW, Russia -- The Mir space station, having slowly descended to the Earth's outer atmosphere, is just eight-miles from burning up.

The aging space station had glided down to about 143 miles above the Earth's surface on Sunday, Russian news reports said.

Russia space controllers are allowing Mir to descend gradually in preparation for an operation later this week to dump the 15-year-old, and increasingly accident prone, station in the Pacific Ocean.

When it reaches about 135 miles above Earth a cargo ship attached to the station is to fire engines to push the Mir into the thicker layers of the atmosphere, where it should break apart and burn.

Flash: Anatomy of a de-orbit

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Any remaining debris from the 130-ton craft is expected to splash down in a 380,000 square mile swath of the Pacific between New Zealand and Chile, away from major air and sea routes.

Originally timed for Wednesday, the burn-up depends on atmospheric conditions.

New Zealand civil defense officials have warned that pieces weighing as much as 700 kg (1543 lbs) could still survive re-entry and has issued international warnings to ships and aircraft travelling in the area.

But air and maritime safety officials say they do not expect shipping and air traffic to be at serious risk from falling debris.

"It's two billion chances to one that you're going to get struck by this thing," estimated Colonel Norman Black of the U.S. Space Command, the military division that tracks satellites.

However a Japanese Government security official said on Friday that Tokyo might recommend people stay in their homes to protect themselves from falling debris.

In a trip condemned as suicidal by Russia's space agency, a California-based public relations firm, has chartered an airplane for a group of space enthusiasts and television crews to fly to the site.

Russian authorities reluctantly decided to scrap Mir, once the jewel in the crown of the Soviet space programme, following numerous glitches and breakdowns and after private investors failed to come up with funds to keep the station in orbit.

Mishaps have included a collision, a fire, and in December last year engineers briefly lost control of the station when its batteries went dead.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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Mir Space Station
International space station Alpha
NASA's Skywatch

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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