Russian space agency to take out insurance on disposing Mir
MOSCOW (AP) – After months shrugging off foreigners’ protests that the Mir space station could come crashing down on a populated area, Russian officials said Tuesday they are negotiating a $200 million insurance policy against any damage the orbiter could cause when it plunges to Earth in March.
Mir set several records during its 15 years in space, but its history of accidents, including a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship, a fire, and computer failures that left it drifting out of control, have fed speculation something could go wrong with plans for a controlled disposal of the obsolete station.
”The insurance is just another attempt to assuage fears,” Russian Aerospace Agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov said during an Internet news conference.
He said the three Russian insurance companies expected to share in covering the risk have ”nothing to fear,” because the re-entry would be safe. Mir will most likely be brought down between March 18 and March 20, although no exact date has been set and the final re-entry could happen earlier or later, Gorbunov said.
Gorbunov wouldn’t provide further details about the insurance, such as how much it would cost.
Japan has been especially concerned, because Mir is expected to pass over its territory on its final, low orbit. ”We have grown tired of repeating that there was no danger for Japan,” Gorbunov said.
One of Mir’s designers, Leonid Gorshkov, dismissed public fears. ”Debris from dozens of booster rockets and hundreds of meteorites annually reach Earth and nothing terrible happens,” Gorshkov said at a separate news conference.
Russian space controllers have extensive experience in dumping used spacecraft into the ocean, since the cargo ships that supply Mir are disposed of that way.
Gorbunov said Tuesday that ground controllers will wait until Mir naturally drifts down to an orbit about 155 miles from Earth instead of using up precious fuel to speed up the descent.
”We don’t want to spend extra fuel to lower its orbit,” Gorbunov said, since that fuel can be used to make sure Mir’s final fall is properly controlled.
Controllers must steady Mir by halting its current slow rolling motion. That will be one of the most difficult tasks, since it requires lots of electrical power, and the station’s batteries are old and unstable.
Finally, a Progress cargo ship docked with the Mir will fire its engines and send the 143-ton station hurtling down in the atmosphere, where friction with the air at high speed will make it glow red-hot. Most of Mir will burn up before reaching the Earth’s surface, but some 1,500 fragments with a total weight of up to 27.5 tons are expected to make it all the way down.
Past re-entry accidents have included the 1978 crash of a Soviet satellite in northern Canada, scattering radioactive fragments over the wilderness but causing no injuries.
A year later, the unoccupied U.S. Skylab space station fell to Earth after its orbit deteriorated faster than expected. Ground controllers tried to aim it into the ocean, but debris came down on a sparsely populated area in western Australia, creating sonic booms and whirring noises audible to people on the ground as it fell. No one was hurt.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.