The end begins for MIR space station
MOSCOW (AP) – Ground controllers powered up Mir’s computerized orientation system early Thursday and fired thrusters to begin stabilizing the station before a fiery descent into the South Pacific that will end its 15-year mission.
At Mission Control headquarters, officials issued commands at 2:35 a.m. to regain full control of Mir. The station’s onboard computer had been sending data to Earth but not receiving information, said a spokeswoman, Olga Soshnikova.
Mir’s primary computer includes its attitude control system, which had to be activated to align the station. Russian space officials had let the uninhabited Mir drift in a slow rolling motion to conserve fuel and battery power.
Thrusters were fired shortly after computer control was regained to stop the tumble, Soshnikova said.
The next task was to align the station’s solar panels with the sun, letting them soak up energy to recharge Mir’s batteries. That was to done during the 15-minute window controllers have to communicate with the station during each orbit.
At Mission Control just outside Moscow, space officials rubbed their faces in the early morning hours and kept their eyes fixed on blinking computer screens.
The 15-year-old Mir, which officials say is decrepit and too expensive to operate any more, has been left to drift in a slow rolling motion since the end of January to save its batteries and fuel for re-entry. It slowly descended on its own into the new orbit over several weeks.
Russian space officials have acknowledged that switching on the dormant systems could be tricky.
In December, Mission Control lost contact with the station for more than 20 hours because the batteries suddenly lost power. Space officials managed to retain contact with Mir during several subsequent power losses, but each of those incidents disabled its central computer for days.
Mission Control experts have worked out a backup – using the onboard computer and separate radio communications of the Progress cargo ship docked at the station.
If Mir’s position can’t be stabilized, the re-entry process will become uncontrollable.
If the process goes smoothly, Progress will fire its engines twice Friday for about 20 minutes, at around 3:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. EST Thursday) and 5 a.m. (9 p.m. EST) during consecutive orbits. That will slow the station and change its orbit from round to elliptical.
Then, at around 8 a.m. Moscow time (midnight EST), Progress engines will fire one last time for 23 minutes to send the station hurtling into the South Pacific between Australia and Chile.
Most of Mir is expected to burn up in the atmosphere during re-entry, but up to 27.5 tons of debris are expected to reach Earth in an oblong debris zone centered roughly around 44 degrees south latitude and 150 degrees west longitude. That spot in the Pacific Ocean is more than 2,000 miles south of Tahiti; about 2,500 miles east of New Zealand; and more than 3,000 miles southwest of Chile’s Easter Island.
On Wednesday, Chile expressed its ”concern and displeasure” over the dumping, ordering its ambassador to Russia to reject an invitation by Moscow to monitor Mir’s fall from the space center.
As a precaution, all flights between Chile and Tahiti were suspended for Thursday and Friday, Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear said.
Space officials were confident of a safe descent, pointing to their experience in dumping dozens of Progress ships and other spacecraft into the same area of the Pacific.
But the 143-ton station is by far the heaviest spacecraft ever dumped, and its size and shape make it difficult to exactly predict the re-entry. ”It’s an experiment,” Mir cosmonaut Valery Ryumin said on Echo of Moscow radio. ”No one has experience at this.”
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