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Pilots, mariners warned to watch out for Mir

Mir's 15 year odyssey ends in a fiery death over the Pacific next week  

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'Danger zone'

Space junk

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- The government of New Zealand has issued alerts to ships and aircraft traveling through the South Pacific next week to keep a watch for debris from the dying Russian space station Mir.

The 130-ton space station is due to enter the earth's atmosphere and plunge into the South Pacific on March 22, give or take a day either side.

Most of the eight-module complex space station is expected to burn up on re-entry, but some pieces weighing as much as 700 kilograms could survive re-entry.

Nonetheless, officials say danger to planes and ships is slim as the 15 year-old space station breaks up over the Pacific before plunging into a designated "space junkyard".

The projected splashdown location is about 4,000 km (2,500 miles) east of the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island, after breaking up over an area east of Fiji.

Approximately six hours beforehand Russian flight controllers will command a series of three rocket firings to start the station's fiery demise.

The rockets designed to guide the demise are located 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.

'Danger zone'

New Zealand, which is in charge of monitoring sea and air traffic in the splashdown area, says it will issue a "notam" -- notice to airmen -- late Friday, warning of a danger area in a corridor of the Auckland oceanic flight information region.

Mir space station
Debris from the space station may weigh up to 700 kg  

"The notam will advise (pilots) that we consider a corridor through our Auckland oceanic FIR to be a danger area during the period of the Mir re-entry," an aviation official told Reuters.

"We won't activate that danger area until we have more accurate information on timing," he said, adding "it's up to them to fly through it or not."

The 200-km wide corridor is used by long-haul aircraft between Auckland and Rarotonga, Tahiti, and Los Angeles.

The Maritime Safety Authority issued a warning two weeks ago, which would remain in force until Mir had splashed down.

Few ships travel through the corridor but it is used by deep-sea fishing boats.

Space junk

Most experts say the possibility of a plane or ship being hit by Mir debris are infinitesimal.

"The chances of any shipping being there is pretty small, and certainly the chances of them being affected is remote," said Tony Martin, deputy director of the Maritime Safety Authority (MSA).

"The whole area was chosen because it is known as the space junk graveyard," he said.

New Zealand's Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management said the Mir "poses no danger" to New Zealand, since there are no radioactive, biological, chemical, or other dangerous materials on board.

New Zealand has reconvened a top-level committee of specialists who monitor the re-entry of space debris near New Zealand.

The committee includes the Prime Minister's Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the police, defense forces, the CAA, and the MSA.

Meanwhile the government of Tonga says it has been passed information from New Zealand on the station's imminent splashdown.

Lupe 'Ilaiu, secretary to Tongan Prime Minister Prince Lavaka Ata 'Ulukalala, said that the government had not yet issued a position statement on Mir.

But an amateur astronomer in the capital Nuku'alofa said there were only two possibilities for Tonga.

"One is that it won't fall on Tonga. The other is that it will fall on Tonga," he said.

"If it does fall on Tonga, we can yell for compensation and we might get much more than Tonga has ever earned in many years put together."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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