US shares secrets to stop Mir disaster

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US shares secrets to stop Mir disaster

Tony Allen-Mills, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado

INSIDE a granite bunker 2,000ft deep in the Rocky Mountains, Major Scott Edwards and his number-crunching crew of military rocket scientists are preparing for a Russian funeral.

In a startling epilogue to four decades of cold-war space-racing, some of America's most sophisticated and sensitive military expertis is being placed in the hands of Russian scientists struggling to control the death throes of the Mir space station, which is about to become the largest man-made orbiter ever to fall back to Earth.

In the bomb-proof, quake-proof underground complex that houses the American military's high-tech missile warning and space command centres, American computers are maintaining a round-the-clock watch on a 140-tonne lump of Russian space junk that could plunge through the atmosphere towards the South Pacific as early as next Sunday.

The long-delayed demise of a 15-year-old prestige Russian project is posing unusual problems for the hard-pressed Moscow scientists fighting to steer their notoriously unstable craft to a safe re-entry position. It also represents a dilemma for American military observers, who are keen to help in a unique technological challenge, but who are also wary of the legal and political fallout should Mir's de-orbit go horribly wrong.

"This isn't an exact science, it's very much an art form," said Colonel Norm Black of the US Space Command, as he described the intricate process of controlling Mir's final fiery plunge from an orbit 155 miles above Earth.

Moscow's mission control is hoping for a trouble-free Pacific splashdown somewhere between Australia and Chile - but it took out a $200m (136m) insurance policy in case Mir lives up to its reputation for disastrous malfunction.

Edwards likened the re-entry process to skimming a pebble on a pond: "You can't predict exactly where it is going to land." Complicating what has become an otherwise familiar space routine is the sheer volume of Russian debris that is likely to survive the heat of Mir's re-entry: up to 25 tonnes of nuts, bolts, canisters and assorted metal parts of the dilapidated space station are likely to enter the atmosphere.

The need to manage a controlled descent that reduces the risk of human populations being pelted with dented hardware has produced the rare spectacle of America's most formidable cold-war-era defence citadel lending its global surveillance abilities to a project run by the former enemy.

In one bunker module buried in Cheyenne Mountain last week, Norad air defence controllers were monitoring the global network of satellites and radars that warn of ballistic missile attack. A short walk away through the heavily insulated command complex, the same defensive network - including input from the Fylingdales radar site in Britain - was providing Edwards's crew with tracking and other scientific data on the 8,300 man-made objects now orbiting Earth.

Anything relevant to Mir's re-entry - from potentially disruptive solar activity and electro-magnetic fluctuation to other bits of junk that may turn up in the dying space station's path - was being forwarded to Nasa, the American space agency that deals directly with Moscow, to be passed on to Mir controllers.

"We are filling in the gaps of their own coverage," Black said. "The preponderance of their [radar] sensors is on Russian soil, and not spread across the world like ours."

While collaboration between Russian and American space agencies has been going on for decades, the US military's willingness to publicise the involvement of its most heavily protected command facility in a Russian space project signals a fast-changing role for a nuclear bunker that became a monument to cold-war hostility.

When the so-called "hardened" facilities at Cheyenne Mountain were conceived in the 1950s, they were designed to withstand a direct hit by an atomic bomb of between one and 30 megatons. American officials admit that direct hits by much more powerful modern ballistic missiles would nowadays "turn Cheyenne Mountain into Cheyenne valley". Yet such is the threat of a lower-scale terrorist assault that Cheyenne's tunnels have retained their value as America's most secure military stronghold.

Inside the mountain last week there was a quiet satisfaction that American technology was being employed in "making the Russians' process easier for them", as one officer put it.

Officers were also keen to emphasise that "Russia has accepted sole legal responsibility" for Mir's descent. "Everyone here has the highest confidence the Russians will do what they say they can do," Black said carefully. Any lawsuits arising from Mir damage should not be sent to Colorado.

Whether lawsuits will be necessary remains a question as murky as Mir's final flight path. Last Wednesday Russian officials announced that the space station would crash on March 20; by Friday they were saying it was more likely to be March 18.

Australian officials estimated last week there was a one in 5,000 chance that a lump the size of a car might hit their country. In Colorado, Black said it would be easier to win the California lottery than be hit by a piece of space junk.

http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/2001/03/11/stifgnusa01003.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 11, 2001

Answers

See http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast10mar_1.htm?list19904 for some more discussion.

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

Nando Times

Japanese worried about Mir's descent

By GARY SCHAEFER, Associated Press

TOKYO (March 13, 2001 11:01 a.m. EST) - U.S. Defense Secretary Donald's Rumsfeld first meeting with Japanese Defense Agency Chief Toshitsugu Saito will be postponed so the military chief can stay home to make sure nothing goes wrong with Russia's planned descent of the space station Mir.

Saito said he put off next week's trip to prioritize "crisis-management concerns" including Mir's re-entry, agency spokesman Isao Oseto said. Saito had planned to leave Japan March 18 and meet with Rumsfeld the next day.

The postponement was the latest in a series of high-profile moves by Japanese authorities trying to reassure a jittery public.

Russian space officials have repeatedly said the Mir poses no significant threat to Japan, the last populated area it is scheduled to pass over in its final, low orbit before breaking up above the Pacific Ocean.

Russia plans to take the 15-year-old Mir out of orbit March 20 in a controlled, fiery plunge into the Pacific between Australia and Chile.

Most of the 150-ton station is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, but Russian officials estimate 1,500 fragments weighing a total of up to 27 tons could reach the Earth's surface.

With Japan's news media full of what-if scenarios and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's crisis-management record under attack in Parliament, the government has come under pressure to take every possible precaution.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to Tokyo to seek reassurances that Japan would receive "prompt and complete information" about the splashdown.

The government is still smarting from criticism of its reaction to the accidental sinking of a Japanese trawler by a U.S. submarine near Hawaii, which killed nine people.

Both allies and political enemies criticized Mori for finishing a round of golf after receiving reports that several high school students had gone missing in the accident.

The news over the weekend that Russia has taken out $200 million in insurance policies against Mir-related damages added to the jitters.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), March 13, 2001.


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