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Deorbiting Mir — Mission Impossible?

YOWUSA.COM, 02-January-01
Steve Russell

Australia is soon to be reminded again of that old saying, "What goes up, must come down."  After being bombarded by the American space station Skylab in the late seventies, our borders are being threatened again by an object from space.  This time it is the Russians monumental Mir space station.

I am a very concerned citizen living near the target zone on the East Coast of Australia.  It has disturbed me greatly to learn that the Russian space agency recently lost contact and control of Mir for an unprecedented 20 hours.

Russia's numerous accidents in the past and ongoing problems with Mir are cause for serious concerns over whether or not deorbiting Mir safely is an impossible mission.

When compared with the challenge Russia faces it makes deorbiting Skylab look like a walk in the park.

Skylab Scare

In the late seventies, NASA was faced with the challenge of deorbiting their $2.6 billion space station known as Skylab. SkylabAt the time, the task was considered important enough to be worthwhile, and difficult enough to be challenging, but not impossible.

Fortunately for NASA, the group responsible for deorbiting Skylab had the privileged luxury of three dressed rehearsals before the main event.  The deorbit of the Pegasus I satellite launched back in 1965, provided the opportunity to evaluate impact prediction models and help establish interagency procedures.  After refining their procedures, NASAs HEAO 1 astronomical satellite returned to Earth, providing the opportunity to evaluate data links between NORAD, Washington and Huntsville.  Finally, a Soviet rocket provided the Skylab group, NORAD, MSFC and JSC, a valued opportunity to determine their readiness.

After several recalculations, the targeted elliptical impact zone was predicted to be approximately 1300 kilometers south-south east of Cape Town, South Africa.  Halfway between North America and Australia, and south of the critical shipping lanes.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, miscalculations resulted in the 77-ton Skylab impacting the West Coast of Australia.  The eastern most point of the impact footprint was about 750 miles south west of the state capital, Perth.

The size of this whole operation was comparable to the return of the Apollo missions at the time.

After the deorbit mission was complete, an examination by the director of JSC's Flight Control Division and his team, found they had miscalculated the effects of drag during the final tumbling sequence.  It was an error of just 4% that resulted in a shifting of the impact zone by hundreds of kilometers.

Skylab project director Richard G Smith said after the mission, "We had a tougher bird than expected."

Does Russia truly understand the strength of their bird?  Does Russia honestly expect to deorbit the entire Mir space station safely? America’s almost disastrous attempt at deorbiting a mini space station has highlighted that no matter how much you prepare; you are never ready enough, and accidents do happen.

Here are some important differences between the two situations: 



77 Ton

140 Ton

6 Years Old

14 Years Old

7400km X 185km Impact Footprint

10,000km X 200km Impact Footprint

3 Live Practice Runs

Relatively Healthy Station

Unpredictable Damaged Station

Russian Roulette

While Russia may have created the first true-to-life space station, their record of failures and the current health of Mir are cause for serious concern.

The Soviet satellite Cosmos 954 crashed into northern Canada in 1978 because of a system failure, and resulted in major embarrassment for the country leadership.  Nobody was hurt, but radioactive fragments from the 45-kg of uranium enriched in the fissionable uranium-235 isotope were scattered all over the wilderness.

Salyut-7 space stationIn 1991, fragments of Mire’s predecessor, the Soviet Salyut-7 space station, fell on Argentina's Andes Mountains near the Chilean border.  Nobody was hurt, but it generated worldwide concern over Russian capabilities.

In late December 2000, six satellites launched from the Plisetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia were destroyed.  One of the booster rockets malfunctioned after ignition, causing the satellites to burn up in the atmosphere.

Mir Malfunctions

The Mir space station has had a long list of problems in recent history.  In 1997, a terrifying fire broke out onboard and a near-disastrous collision with an unmanned cargo ship occurred causing serious damage to primary power sources.  A series of computer glitches and breakdowns left the space station spinning aimlessly through space and kept the Russian space agency on their toes.

In late December 2000, Mir experienced “one of the worst breakdowns in our history” said Mission Control Chief Vladimir Solovyov.  Flight controllers were forced to work franticly around the clock to regain contact with the dead space station.  A mysterious and sudden problem caused the batteries to rapidly drain until nearly all power was lost.

After repeated unsuccessful attempts, contact was temporarily reestablished for several minutes but then lost again.  After an unprecedented 20 hours of uncontrollable silence, contact was obtained and maintained.

Yuri KoptevRussian space agency chief, Yuri Koptev recently said, "Mir is in such poor condition any of its systems can go at anytime."  It is important to remember that regular radio contact is essential in order to control the position of Mir.

Russia is now faced with the challenge of deorbiting this unpredictable, volatile, damaged and heavy piece of machinery. What happens if one or more of the critical systems fail during this operation?  Can the Russian government afford to compensate those injured or killed as a result of this mission?  Can the International Space Station program afford an international public relations nightmare as this scenario proposes?

Method In The Madness

Mir Space StationThere is no space agency in the world that has the experience of deorbiting such a complex and cumbersome spacecraft.  The Russian government has estimated and allocated $25 million to achieve this mighty ambition.

Solovyov recently said, "We have a plan to bid farewell to the Mir in a civilized and organized way." Koptev recently said, "We must leave a good memory of the station, not turn it into a weapon threatening all of mankind."  Unfortunately, the threat is already above us, all 140 ton of it.  What we do not need is for it to be brought down by an agency that is currently struggling with so many severe problems.

Their plan is to crash Mir into the Pacific Ocean, about 1400 - 1900 kilometers east of Australia on February 26 - 28.  Anatoly Kiselev, head of the Khrunichev Space Center that helped build Mir, said ballistic experts predicted that parts of the vehicle would hit an area up to 10,000 kilometers long and 200 kilometers wide.  He also said there was no way to guarantee that all debris would fall safely into the ocean.

Space debris experts believe that as much as 50 tons of debris is expected to crash into Earth. Some individual pieces are predicted to be over half a ton in weight.  This kind of debris is capable of smashing through reinforced concrete 2 meters thick.

Remember that the Americans miscalculated by only 4% that caused a shift of the impact zone of hundreds of kilometers, and thus resulted in a dangerous land impact.  Mir is twice the size of Skylab and has an impact zone covering significantly larger parts of the Earth.  At the predicted maximum distance of 1900 kilometers off the heavily populated East Coast, the margin for error will be very small.

Final Legacy

Mir was a monumental space station that produced monumental discoveries in many fields of research, and provided monumental opportunities for the human species.  We can now only hope and pray that its final legacy is not a monumental misfortune for those of us living on the East Coast of Australia.