Deadline set for Mir's demise
LONDON, England -- Russia's space agency has set Friday as the last day in space for the 15-year-old Mir space station.
"It will be March 23, and March 24 as a reserve day in the case of emergency situations," said a spokesman for the agency.
Most of the 135-ton Mir should burn up during re-entry but up to 40 tons of surviving debris is expected to plunge into a remote swath of the Pacific between New Zealand and Chile by 10 a.m. Moscow time (0700 GMT).
The space station has cut a fiery swathe across the Pacific during its final orbits, with locals including Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase clapping and cheering at the man-made shooting star.
Russia is allowing Mir - once the jewel in its space programme -- to descend gradually to save fuel for the final push into the atmosphere.
When it falls to about 132 miles (220 kilometres), a Progress cargo ship attached to the station will fire engines to push Mir into the thicker layers of the atmosphere, where it will break apart and burn.
The re-entry will resemble a meteorite show, with burning pieces streaking and popping across the night sky for several minutes.
Tiny nations throughout the South Pacific are on alert for the chunks of space station which will be traveling at 17,500 miles an hour.
Authorities in Fiji have the nation's 800,000 people not to go out after Thursday night, to stay off boats and to avoid touching any "foreign objects."
Japan has issued a similar warning, and authorities in Australia and New Zealand are on standby for any emergency.
A spokeswoman for Australia's Qantas Airlines said the airline had one flight that could be affected -- a Friday morning flight to Buenos Aires from Sydney.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and we have contingency plans in place," she said.
Moscow has taken out $200 million in insurance in case its plans to dump what is left of Mir harmlessly in the ocean go awry.
But the Russian space experts, part of a scientific observation team which has set up camp in Fiji, insisted there was little chance of the re-entry going wrong.
"There's absolutely no danger," said Sergey Zaletin, the cosmonaut commander of the last manned mission to Mir.
Elena Kondakova, who served on Mir as a flight engineer in 1994-95, said the observation team totalled 48 people, including scientists, space journalists, camera crews and some fee-paying passengers. Russia's space agency is also taking part.
The group will fly two aircraft chartered from Air Fiji to a point south-east of Tonga, where they hope to be within a few hundred kilometres of Mir's red-hot re-entry into the atmosphere.
Russia reluctantly decided to dump the Mir last autumn after numerous glitches and breakdowns and after private investors failed to come up with funds to keep the station in orbit.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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