MIR SPACE STATION
The ageing Russian space station Mir may have been saved from being allowed to crash into the Pacific in March.
Russia's space agency has announced that a two-man crew of Russian cosmonauts would fly to Mir to start a 45-day mission in March, following the dispatch of an unmanned rocket loaded with fuel, water, air and other supplies at the end of January.
This follows an the appearance unexpected financial support from a British Virgin Islands-based venture capital company called Gold & Appel Transfer who have paid $7m to Energiya, the Russian space contractor which operates Mir, top help extend the life of the station.
The company plans to sub-lease Mir from Energiya over a number of years, invest a considerable sum of it own money, conduct extensive renovation of the unit and is considering a plan to attach a "tether' to the space station to the Earth's magnetic field.
This rescue package comes after the failure of a series of curious schemes aimed at keeping Mir in space, whose backers have included a former Russian cosmonaut, a film director and a British businessman whose funds failed to materialise.
On April 6 2000 The world's first privately-funded manned space mission docked on schedule with Mir space station. Two Russians blasted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on 4 April 2000 in a last ditch attempt to keep the once-proud Soviet-era orbiter in space.
Mir has been unmanned for the past eight months and is slowly leaking air.
Moscow is now scrambling to make the 14- year old vessel commercially viable despite Western pressure for Russia to drop the project and instead help build the new International Space Station. The ISS massive construction has been delayed because of Moscow's financial worries.
The Russian team's mission has been extended from 45-60 days and could last up to 90 days if Energiya can raise additional funds. Deputy chairman of Energiya Nikolai Zelenshchikov said the current mission would enhance rather than hurt the ambitious ISS project. He also said that Mir was still capable of functioning for two or three more years.
The Mir space station, the symbol of former Soviet space glory, is to be deliberately burnt-up in the Earth's atmosphere next February, Russian news agencies have reported.
A private company, MirCorp, has been trying to raise money to operate Mir and has been training an American millionaire for a mission at a cost of $20m (£13.7m).
That is now unlikely to go ahead if, as reports suggest, the Russian government prefers to concentrate its limited space resources on the International Space Station. "We are planning to bring the Mir down into the ocean at the end of February," Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov is quoted as saying.
Klebanov, who is in charge of space policy in the Cabinet, had previously voiced hopes that private funds would keep Mir in orbit. Earlier this year the station had a new lease of life when the Netherlands-based MirCorp signed a lease agreement and provided some funds to keep it aloft. But Klebanov left no doubt that the decision to destroy Mir was final adding that officials are now preparing details of the operation to discard the 14-year old station.
Russian space officials have grown increasingly sceptical about MirCorp's ability to raise the money needed to keep the station aloft. Mir has been quickly losing altitude since its latest crew left in June, and Russian space officials have said it is necessary to raise the orbit now so that the 130-tonne station doesn't fall out of control.
The uncontrollable plunge of Mir would have been a nightmare that Russian space officials wanted to avoid at all costs, since heavy fragments of the station could have fallen on populated areas. Klebanov said that another Progress with a larger amount of fuel would be launched to Mir to provide the final impulse to bring it down.
Viktor Blagov, deputy head of the Russian space flight control centre, said: "The preliminary scenario for destroying Mir which can be accomplished in February 2001 has been prepared." Mir's orbit, already decaying naturally because of atmospheric drag, will be reduced to 80 km (50 miles), causing the space station to enter the dense layers of the atmosphere where most of it will burn up. The remains of the station will then fall in a sparsely populated region of the Indian Ocean. "Everything will go according to the laws of physics: the station will burn and break apart," Blagov said, adding that the entire operation would take several days.
'Space tourist' still banking on Russians
Mir is set for destruction early next year The man who signed a contract to fly to Mir as the world's first space tourist still hopes to get into orbit despite the recent decision to ditch the space station in the Pacific Ocean early next year.
Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old Californian investment consultant, thinks that if he cannot go to the Mir he may get an opportunity to visit the new International Space Station (ISS) instead. Mr Tito has deposited millions of dollars in an escrow account which will be released to the Russian space authorities the moment his rocket leaves the ground - and he believes the cash can still help him fulfil his dream. "The key is launch,'' he told the Associated Press. "All they have to do is light the rockets and the escrow opens up and they get all the money. And it's a lot of money. There's a real strong incentive, I think, for the Russians to fly me.''
Mir will be de-orbited at the end of February. A final manned mission to the platform will probably be required to prepare it for destruction. But it is thought highly unlikely that a space tourist would join such an important safety mission.
Dennis Tito is currently training with Russia's cosmonauts
This then raises the prospect of a trip to the US-led ISS, currently occupied by its first long-term residents. The Russians have the right to nominate individuals for certain seats on some flights to the ISS. This has
led to speculation that Tito could fly to the new platform in April, when a Soyuz capsule attached to the station for emergency evacuations will be replaced.
Either way, if Mr Tito has not left Earth by 30 June, 2001, the deal he signed is off.