Mir begins final death plunge
(CNN) -- The Russian space station Mir began a fatal descent on Friday, hurtling toward the Earth in a dive that will soon end its reign as the heaviest artificial object in orbit.
The 15-year-old orbiter should break up in the atmosphere and splash down in a remote expanse of the South Pacific Ocean within an hour or two, Russian space officials said.
A Progress cargo ship docked to Mir and laden with fuel initiated the final braking maneuver just after midnight EST, after two earlier burns nudged the unmanned outpost from a circular to elliptical orbit in preparation for the plunge.
Most of the 135-ton station should burn and disintegrate in the atmosphere. But 1,500 pieces of debris collectively weighing up to 30 tons are expected to survive, including pieces as heavy as a small automobile.
Fallout from the sprawling modular complex should plunge into the ocean between New Zealand and Chile as dusk approaches in the area, the Russian space agency said.
Earlier Thursday, mission controllers in Moscow, smoking cigarettes and staring at a large map screen tracking Mir, busily plotted the course of the satellite during its final orbital laps, 135 miles (217 km) above the Earth.
They powered up the station's main orientation computer for the first time in months, coaxing the spinning craft to stabilize itself. They had allowed Mir to tumble through its orbit to save fuel for the atmospheric entry.
Crown jewel loses its luster
Once the crown jewel of the Soviet space program, Mir racked up an impressive number of accomplishments in the sky -- longest time in orbit for a space station, 15 years; longest time in space for a human, 438 days; heaviest object ever to orbit Earth, except for the moon.
Mir survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as a stranded cosmonaut watched the events unfold below. It hosted U.S. shuttle astronauts, a Japanese reporter and a British candy chemist who won a contest for the trip.
But in recent years Mir became increasingly prone to accidents and breakdowns. In 1997, cosmonauts donned gas masks to battle a fire after an oxygen-generating canister burst into flames.
Months later, crew members almost died after a cargo ship crashed into the station, the worst collision in space. The pair somehow located and sealed a dangerous air leak.
Private investors sought to revive Mir in 2000, leasing the decrepit, desolate station to make it an exotic destination for wealthy tourists. But renovation funds proved scarce and a $20 million deal to send the first customer to Mir fizzled.
Instead Dennis Tito, a former NASA engineer who made a fortune as an investment banker, has his sights set on the international space station, which began hosting crews in November.
A 16-nation project, the space station Alpha could cost $100 billion when completed later this decade. Most of the money will come from the United States, but Russia, the second-largest partner, has considerable investment in Alpha as well.
"Overall, Mir did a wonderful job for far longer than its design lifetime and it ought to get credit for it," said Norm Thaagard, a NASA astronaut who visited Mir in 1995.
"Mir could have continued to serve a useful function. The problem is the Russians don't have the economic wherewithal to support the both the Mir and their role in the international space station. So in this case, my head overrules my heart. I think the Russians are doing the right thing."
'A piece of heaven in my lap'
The Russian space agency, Rosaviakosmos, has made repeated assurances that Mir will plunge harmlessly into an empty swath of the Pacific between New Zealand and Chile. Rosaviakosmos has retired dozens of spacecraft in that area over the years.
But Pacific Rim and island nations made preparations in case Mir misses the mark. Taiwan, Japan and other countries warned residents to be ready to seek shelter should something go wrong. New Zealand and Australia have delayed or rerouted airline fights in the region.
Some space enthusiasts sought out the danger zone. A group of Americans and Russians, including former Mir cosmonauts, planned to tag along the debris trail in a charter plane from Fiji to watch the spectacle.
Space experts predict quite a show. Burning debris should streak through the atmosphere like a storm of meteorites. Pressured modules could pop like giant fireworks.
Fishermen in the South Pacific could inadvertently witness the event. Dozens of fishing boats were perilously close to the dump zone Thursday, including almost 30 U.S.-Samoan-based vessels pursuing tuna.
Most will be unable to leave the area before Mir arrives, New Zealand maritime authorities said. The Western Fishboat Owners Association said that they would have warned members earlier but received no warning until last week.
"This is the only time in my life when I've hoped that a little piece of heaven doesn't fall in my lap," said Barry Diehl, captain of the fishing vessel Alaska.
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