Russia Will Crash Mir into the Pacific Ocean in February 2001

By Keith Cowing
November 16, 2000
Filed under

The Russian Cabinet has decided to end the speculation about Mir’s fate and send it back to Earth. Numerous attempts have been made in the past several years to deorbit the space station only to be reversed by last minute changes of heart. Recent decisions have been tempered by the prospect of commercial utilization of Mir. Given that Russia is cash strapped and unable to meet all of its space obligations, the commercial funding of Mir’s operations emerged a year or so ago as the only potentially viable means of keeping Mir alive. Despite attempts by MirCorp including the financing of several missions to Mir, the Russian government has decided that there is simply not enough commercial interest to generate the funds needed to keep Mir aloft and operational.

According to statements made by Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency “We cannot continue this game … which I call Russian roulette. We simply don’t have the right to do that, because we are a government agency responsible for the safety of the Mir.”

The current plan is to crash Mir into the Pacific Ocean approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Australia between 27 and 28 February 2001. While many feel confident that Mir can be brought back to Earth safely, others are not so sure. At 130 tons, Mir would be, by far, the largest satellite ever to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. Its is composed of a half dozen large modules bolted together. Many large pieces weighing many tons are certain to survive reentry and strike the Earth.

Anatoly Kiselyov, Director General of Russia’s Khrunichev space research center is quoted by Interfax as saying that pieces of Mir “will fall over a swath 8,000-10,000 kilometers long and 200 kilometers wide with some probability that they will fall over land.”

There is also the issue of how the atmosphere will affect Mir’s final days and its impact point. America’s Skylab found itself coming back to Earth sooner than expected due to heightened solar activity and the effects this had on Earth’s atmosphere and the drag it imposed upon Skylab. When Skylab finally entered the atmosphere on 11 July 1979 it held together deeper into the atmosphere than expected striking a remote region of Australia instead of open ocean as had been anticipated.

Mir’s predecessor Salyut 7 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere on 7 February 1991. The plan had been to send it into the Atlantic Ocean. It almost made it. Pieces of the spacecraft are reported to have hit the town of Capitan Bermudez approximately 400 km away from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Luckily, no injuries were reported.

Recent experience with large spacecraft – most notably the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO) shows that it is possible to guide a large spacecraft to a rather precise impact point. Like CGRO, Mir will have the ability to be controlled as it comes in. Current plans call for a Progress tanker to be sent to Mir in January to bring Mir back to Earth. According to Yuri Koptev, a standby Soyuz crew would be ready for launch to Mir on short notice should something go wrong.

While some feel that Mir’s reentry can all be done by remote control, others feel that having a crew ride Mir part of the way down would offer a greater chance of assuring that it would land where mission controllers plan to send it. Given Russian budgetary problems (the prime reason Mir can no longer be supported) and pressures to focus its resources on the ISS program, it is unlikely that a Soyuz spacecraft will be used unless it is absolutely necessary.

With Mir’s end comes a few questions – one of the most pressing is what will happen to MirCorp’s paying customer Dennis Tito? Will he ask for his money back? Will MirCorp and Energia come up with a way to fly him to the International Space Station?

A note of caution: while this announcement seems to have the authenticity and finality one would expect for such a major decision – i.e. the deliberate destruction of a national space asset – we have seen such announcements come and go before. If one thing can be said for Mir, it has an amazing track record when it comes to cheating death.

Related Links

  • MirCorp

  • RSC Energia

  • Where is Mir?, NASA MSFC

  • 3 October 2000: MIR Reported to be Crashing Back to Earth in Early 2001, SpaceRef (contains detailed collection of links on the commercialization of Mir and the ISS)

  • 28 September 2000: Sending “Average” People into Space is Suddenly VERY Popular, SpaceRef

    Background Information

  • 7 April 1999: ISS End of Life Disposal, NASA MSFC – a discussion of how the U.S. Propulsion module would be used to safely deorbit the International Space Station at the end of its lifetime.

  • The Deorbit of Skylab, Chapter 19 from “Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab” NASA SP-4208 by W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, 1983.

  • 24 March 2000: NASA Will Crash CGRO into the Pacific Ocean in June, SpaceRef

  • 14 January 2000: NASA Preparing Plans for Destructive Reentry to End Compton Gamma Ray Observatory’s Mission, SpaceRef

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.