A Mir 60 minutes warning

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A Mir 60 minutes warning

By MARK STEENE and MARK LUDLOW 06mar01

IF the Russian Mir space station hits Australia, people will have just 60 minutes to prepare for car-size pieces crashing to Earth at three times the speed of sound.

Emergency authorities are confident the debris including 700kg chunks will land, as expected, in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Chile. But with the Russians themselves admitting there is a one in 33 chance of something going wrong, disaster relief authorities want an Australian observer at Russian mission control in case sections of the doomed Mir space station crash into Australia. Mir is falling to Earth at the rate of 1400m a day and is expected to crash into the Pacific some time this month.

The latest re-entry date from the Russian Space Agency is March 28, but other agencies say it could be as early as March 12 or as late as early April.

Emergency Management Australia, the Defence Department's peak disaster relief agency, said as of yesterday morning Mir was at an altitude of 260.6km and orbiting Earth about every 92 minutes.

EMA director-general David Templeman said Mir's final orbit would take it over Japan, northeast of Australia and New Zealand for its final demise in the so-called spaceship graveyard midway between Chile and New Zealand.

Despite assurances from Russian space officials, Mr Templeman said there was still a margin for error.

"We have requested agreement from the Russian authorities to have an Australian liaison officer in the Mir Mission Control Centre so that real time re-entry information can be relayed to Australia," he said.

"Due to the variable nature of the atmosphere and the shape of Mir, its performance is unpredictable. As Mir enters the upper atmosphere at an altitude of about 150km, its trajectory will become increasingly subject to aerodynamic variables." Mr Templeman said most of the 135-tonne Mir was expected burn up during re-entry, but some large parts up to 700kg may survive the heat and splash down.

"The international space community is confident in the Russian Government's ability to safely de-orbit Mir," he said.

"Nevertheless, due to some unpredictability of how Mir may react when it enters the Earth's atmosphere, it is prudent that appropriate contingency plans are prepared to address possible problems."

Mr Templeman said EMA had been co-ordinating plans for any mishap with Federal Government agencies and all states and territories.

It has also requested information from the Russian Embassy in Canberra.

"The re-entry track of Mir takes it well to the east of Australia and it is highly unlikely that Australia will be affected," Mr Templeman said.

But in the unlikely event something did go very wrong, there would be little time to do anything about one hour, Mr Templeman said.

Further information on the re-entry will be placed on the EMA website at www.ema.gov.au

http://www.theadvertiser.com.au/common/story_page/0,4511,1784331%255E911,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 08, 2001

Answers

DUCK!

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), March 08, 2001.

Time to break out the hard hats. After watching TV about all the space junk out there I think I will just wear my hard hat all the time.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 08, 2001.

tinfoil works better <:-

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), March 08, 2001.

Joking aside, with that little warning time and with the inherent unpredictability of the very specific final landing spot(s), it's not clear to me what most people could do to adequately prepare or react. If a warning went out to a densely populated area--say a city-- there might be sufficiently deep basements in big buildings to be useful.

I would certainly recommend taking whatever underground shelter was available, but in a *direct* hit to a building you'd have to be pretty deep to be protected...the Mir debris that survives reentry will be moving quite fast indeed. I wonder what the dangerous "blast area" will be if Mir pieces hit land? A couple thousand feet at least? I don't know, I'm guessing. The good news is that the probability of Mir hitting anyone, even if it hits land, are pretty small: The simple statistics (occupied land versus size of blast area) are in favor of no one getting hurt. Of course, Japan could be a problem compared to western Australia. And believe me, I'm not suggesting this is a trivial issue for anyone, but the numbers are against anyone getting hurt.

Interestingly enough, there are a handful of *well-documented* instances of people or possessions being hit by (natural) meteorites. For example, in the 1950s a woman in Alabama was sitting in her house and a meteorite hit her in the leg after smashing through her roof. I saw a picture in a book of her wound; it was a glancing blow and she was OK...it could easily have killed her. I think there are one or two similar events documented since then, wasn't some guy in Spain in the 1990s hit in the finger by a meteorite while he was driving his car? Also, circa 1994 I think, there was an empty parked car that was hit by a meteor in upstate New York. The trunk had a huge hole punched through it (the relevant half of the vehicle was displayed for a while in the Museum of Natural History in NY City, where I saw it).

I am unaware of any human injury or death from human-made objects falling to Earth (fortunately, the examples of the Russian satellite in Canada and the U.S. Skylab in Australia did not involve damage to people or buildings).

It is of course worth noting that the meteorites in the examples above were quite small. Even in the Canada and Australia instances, the human-made debris was small compared to the mass of Mir that may survive reentry. I think the chunks of Mir will be much more dangerous because of their size.

Let's hope the Russians do this right!

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), March 09, 2001.


Mutant Bacteria Next Threat From Russia's Mir March 6, 2001 9:32 am EST

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Forget the danger of heavy-weight debris raining down from space when Russia sends the Mir orbiter to a watery grave this month -- the real threat could be mutant fungi, a researcher said Tuesday. Yuri Karash, an expert on the Russian space program, said there was a possibility that micro-organisms, which have spent the last 15 years mutating in isolation aboard Mir, could present a threat if they survived the fall to Earth.

"I wouldn't overstate it ... but a realistic problem exists," Karash told a news conference.

Karash, who has undergone cosmonaut training and is an aerospace advisor, said his conclusions were based on research carried out by Russia's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems.

Researchers have said that the fungi could be especially virulent if mixed with earth varieties that attack metal, glass and plastic.

Western health officials have in the past expressed concerns about micro-organisms that could be brought back to earth after a Russian microbiologist 13 years ago discovered the first of many aggressive forms of fungi inhabiting Mir.

Russian space officials have played down the threat, but visitors to the orbiter have found numerous types of fungi behind control panels, in air-conditioning units and on dozens of other surfaces.

Though surprisingly destructive, they give off corrosive agents like acetic acid and release toxins into the air.

http://www.iwon.com/home/news/news_article/0,11746,105576|top|03-06- 2001::10:10|reuters,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 09, 2001.



mutant bacteria data base :)

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), March 09, 2001.

Martin, I just don't know what to make of the threat from the supposedly "mutated" fungi and bacteria on Mir. (I use quotes because I don't know if this is verified--are these bugs merely thriving because of the lack of competition plus weightlessness? Maybe they are normal bugs thriving in abnormal conditions, and will fail miserably once back on Earth.) Despite the frequency with which the threat comes up in sci-fi (most brilliantly in the wonderful novel _The Andromeda Strain_) I don't know that we have much to worry about. I could be wrong, but I'd like to read some reasoned scientific discussion about the issue before assuming there's a real threat.

Presumably the numerous visitors to Mir have been colonized with these bugs and brought them inadvertently back from orbit, yet we have no sightings--so far--of the Blob taking over Cleveland.

Regarding the mass of "mutant" bugs still aboard Mir: I would guess that the heat of reentry, ending in a shockingly hard impact into a hopefully watery grave (a very different biological niche than where they have evolved over the last 15 years) would render the bugs irrelevant...but I don't know enough to be certain.

Anyone know of any credibly discussion of these issues? This weekend I'll try to surf some likely places, including the Federation of American Scientists website and NASA of course, and see if I find anything useful.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), March 09, 2001.


Andre, if anyone is studying mutant bacteria seriously, it will be the US Defence Dept.--but I don't know the website. I was astounded to see how much they are doing in the area of genetics and of genomes--all because of radiation!

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), March 09, 2001.

Re: mutant bacteria and the "defence" department:

See the 1988 book, _Gene Wars: Military Control Over the New Genetic Technologies_, Charles Piller & Keith Yamamoto, Beech Tree Books, NY.

(Written over a decade ago but the basics are still true.)

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), March 12, 2001.


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