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U.S. Provides Data to Russians For Mir Splashdown (updated)

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2001 – U.S. space specialists are providing Russian technicians with Mir space station positional data to help ensure the vehicle’s safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean later this week.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
The U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis (bottom) undocks from the 140-ton Russian Space Station Mir in April 1996. Mir is losing altitude and scheduled for a controlled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere in late March 2001. U.S. Space Command is providing the Russians with tracking information to help keep the operation safe. NASA Photo.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., is now providing the tracking information through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Russian Aviation and Space Agency -- RosAviaKosmos -- in Moscow, said SPACECOM spokesman Air Force Maj. Perry Nouis.

“We have an observer role limited to providing data to the Russians,” Nouis said during a recent interview with American Forces Press Service. “This is actually routine for us. We’ve been tracking Mir since it was launched in 1986.” Mir is one of 8,300 orbiting objects SPACECOM tracks daily to provide space situational awareness and warning against possible incoming ballistic missiles, he said.

The Russians have stated the Mir’s controlled re-entry is strictly their responsibility, Nouis emphasized. Unusual to the operation, though, “is the amount of data and the frequency of updates SPACECOM is providing the Russians -- several times a day,” he noted.

As Mir gets closer to splashdown -- now estimated to occur March 23 around 1 a.m. eastern standard time somewhere in the South Pacific between New Zealand and South America -- the United States plans to provide hourly updates, he added.

“We’re just one source of information for them,” Nouis said, adding that the European Space Agency is also providing Mir tracking information to the Russians.

The Soviet Union launched Mir’s main module into orbit on Feb. 20, 1986, Nouis said. After gathering scientific data for more than a decade, the 140-ton space station -- with several modules each the size of a school bus -- has reached the end of its useful life, he said. For years, Nouis noted, NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have worked together on various projects aboard Mir.

Controlled re-entries of old spacecraft aren’t anything new for the Russians. They’ve “directed successful splashdowns of many other units,” Nouis said. The U.S. government has agreed, within its capabilities, to provide Russia with Mir tracking and trajectory data, as well as scientific data on atmospheric conditions, including solar activity, during the de-orbit period, according to a March 2 U.S. State Department news release.

SPACECOM uses its Space Surveillance Network’s ground-based radar sensors and telescopes at 19 locations around the world to track the Mir and other objects, Nouis said. He noted the Russians would incorporate U.S.- and European- supplied Mir data with their own.

Over 26,000 items have been shot into earth orbit since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, Nouis said. More than 17,000 have re-entered the atmosphere since then, he added, with most splashing down in the oceans or disintegrating from friction. Mir is so large, he said, that scientists around the world estimate about 25 tons of it could survive the return to earth.

Oceans cover 75 percent of Earth’s surface, Nouis said, noting “there is lots of uninhabited ocean between New Zealand and South America in the Mir target area.”

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