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Mir maneuvers before risky plunge


MOSCOW, Russia-- Russian mission controllers prepared to stabilize the spinning space station Mir as it took some of its final laps around Earth ahead of a suicidal plunge.

Mir dropped to an orbit of 132 miles (220 km) on Wednesday, the altitude from which the sprawling modular complex will conduct a deadly descent on Friday into the Pacific Ocean.

"The next step will be bringing Mir to a stable orbit," Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said.

The station has been slowly rolling along in its orbit since January -- the Russian space agency wanted to save its limited fuel and electricity supplies for atmospheric reentry.

Mission managers will switch on Mir's computer-controlled orientation system Thursday to steady the spinning craft, a procedure that they acknowledge carries some risk.

Batteries might not keep going

Moscow lost control with Mir in December for 20 hours because of an unexpected battery power outage. Contact was regained during several later power losses, but each of the incidents seriously impaired the main computer on Mir for several days.

Fearing similar glitches, mission engineers devised a backup orientation system, using the computer and radio communications onboard a Progress cargo ship attached to the station.

If its position remains unstable, the 15-year-old orbiter would enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner, meaning it could miss its target area in a remote swath of the South Pacific between New Zealand and Chile.

If the maneuver goes well, the Progress ship on Friday will fire its thrusters twice to position Mir and a third time to send it hurtling toward Earth.

Most of the 135-ton station should burn up in the atmosphere but up to 30 tons of debris, including some pieces the size of an automobile, are expected to reach the surface.

Splashdown should take place approximately 9:45 a.m. Moscow time (1:45 a.m. EST), according to Mission Control.

Guiding Mir with a grassy 'X'

The Russian space agency said 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.

Some residents of the region put a positive spin on the upcoming spectacle.

"We're not real confident in the Russian technology that's floating above us at the moment," said Garry Maguire, a farmer in Queensland, Australia, several thousands miles or kilometers from the target area.

"We're taking precautions and just to give them a decent target so it doesn't land on a city or a house, we'd like it to land right there," he said, indicating a large "X" he mowed on his property.

The Associated Press & Reuters contributed to this report.


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