Ships at risk in Mir crash zone
WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- As the Mir space station makes its final orbits, New Zealand authorities say more than 30 merchant ships and fishing vessels are sitting in its targeted crash zone.
Among the vessels are as many as 27 Albacore tuna fishing trawlers who learned Thursday that Mir's final path would place the central debris area just 150 miles (241 kilometers) south of their position.
The Maritime Safety Authority of New Zealand (MSA) says it is continuing to broadcast and update warnings to the vessels, with Mir due to begin falling through the Earth's atmosphere at around 6:30 p.m. local time (0630 GMT) Friday.
Russian space officials have finalized Mir's intended trajectory and are carrying out checks on all systems prior to commencing a series of three controlled braking impulses to de-orbit Mir.
The change to Mir's final orbit means the space station will no longer pass directly over Fiji and Tonga. The path now takes Mir slightly closer to New Zealand.
Most of the 143-ton, 15-year-old space station is expected to burn up when Mir hits the Earth's atmosphere, but large fragments -- up to 30 tons of debris -- are expected to plunge into the Pacific Ocean midway between New Zealand and Chile.
All ships warned
The MSA says it has been broadcasting a navigational warning for the last two weeks, updating all shipping in and near the area with the expected crash time and the expected debris area.
"We have been very careful to update warning messages and are quite confident that information is getting to all ships in the area," says Tony Martin, Deputy-Director of the MSA.
"We will continue to broadcast until we hear no more about Mir."
Wayne Heikkila, General Manager of the Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA) which operates the trawlers, says the fishermen were inadequately warned and were only made aware of the Mir risk in the past week.
"Nobody warned us from the usual channels like the U.S. Coast Guard," he says.
"Some of the first information came out of Australia and New Zealand."
The vessels -- mostly U.S. and based in American Samoa -- were chasing a school of tuna to finish up a harsh South Pacific fishing season.
Heikkila says the boats are now all aware of the intended splash-down area and are concentrated together about 1200 miles southwest of American Samoa, 500 miles west of New Zealand's Chatham Island.
Meanwhile, the MSA says there are five or six other merchant vessels further to the north.
Bad weather and slow boat speeds means the fishing fleet cannot escape the area.
"It'd take a couple of days to get out of the area," Heikkila says. "It's just another thing they have to be concerned about. They've faced things like typhoons before, hopefully it'll be okay."
The crews are not too concerned, he says, adding that they are likely to be best placed to view Mir's final moments.
"They'll definitely be paying attention. I don't think they're going to be losing sleep over it. They'll definitely be watching though."
Martin agrees that the risk of any of the ships being hit by Mir's debris is remote but says the MSA would quickly mount a search and rescue.
One of the difficulties for authorities and vessels has been the changing trajectory of Mir as Russian space officials re-evaluated plans for ditching Mir.
"The first report we had was the area from 400 to 600 miles east of where the boats are and then this morning [Thursday] we were told the new path was 150 miles south of them," Heikkila says.
"Essentially Mir's trajectory will go right over them."
While the fishing fleet may be have the best vantage point to watch Mir's fiery demise, they are more at risk than civilians on land.
Nevertheless, authorities in Japan, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and other South Pacific nations are monitoring Mir's progress carefully.
"We are confident that the Mir space station poses no risk to New Zealand," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said in a statement.
"On the day of Mir's return to Earth, New Zealand will be represented by a New Zealand diplomat in the Russian space control center in Moscow to give us early warning of any changes to the space station's orbit," she said.
The Russian space agency says that it could not pinpoint the exact location where fragments would fall. The projected target area shifts slightly from day to day due to changes in the atmosphere.
The atmosphere breathes," deputy flight director Victor Blagov told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass on Wednesday.
The target zone "slightly shifts all the time either to one side of another," he said.
Blagov emphasized that the falling fragments will still fall far from populated regions.
Despite such reassurances, Pacific Rim and Pacific island nations have cautioned their populations to be prepared to take cover when the heaviest artificial object ever in orbit falls to Earth.
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