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Russia's Mir space station returned to Earth 21 years ago

The project lives on as part of the ISS – but for how much longer?

Today marks 21 years since Russia's space station, Mir, returned to Earth.

As the rhetoric from Russian space agency Roscosmos intensifies, it is worth taking a look back at the deorbit of the Mir complex, the first components of which were launched during the Soviet era.

Assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) was well under way when Mir met its demise. Indeed, it was Russia's commitment to the ISS that ended the veteran station; funding simply did not exist to keep both programs running.

Continuous occupation of Mir ended in 1999, with the return to Earth of the EO-27 crew. One more visit occurred in 2000, with a pair of cosmonauts spending two months aboard the outpost with a view to it being used for commercial purposes, but those plans came to naught other than delaying Mir's fate to 2001.

Operators were keen to de-orbit the complex while it remained under control. On December 26, 2000, contact was briefly lost due to a power drain, and a crew was put on standby to supervise the procedure from onboard the station. They were not required. In January, Mir's computer and gyrodynes (used to maintain attitude) were brought back online and a Progress freighter, loaded with extra fuel, docked on January 27.

There were hopes that the station could yet endure and be boosted to a higher orbit ahead of a possible reoccupation, but the rate of decay coupled with the sheer age of the complex meant that a de-orbit was inevitable.

Leaving the station to come down through atmospheric drag could have resulted in debris striking inhabited regions (NASA's Skylab had sprayed Australia two decades earlier) so the engines of the attached Progress were fired three times on 23 March 2001. Mir's orbit was first dropped to 103 x 137 miles with the initial two firings. The third and final firing was sufficient to set the station on a course to the Pacific ocean.

The complex encountered the atmosphere soon after passing over Japan, and its solar arrays were torn off by the force of re-entry. Its modules came off as it passed over the Pacific, and the demise of the station was visible from Fiji. Anything that survived re-entry fell into the ocean and was not recovered. Mir had, as Russia put it, "ceased to exist."

But the project lives on. Mir 2 forms the rump of Russia's contribution to the ISS and recent emissions from Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin have suggested that Russia might undock its portion in the future.

A brave move, considering the age of the structures.

The Zvezda Service Module, built for Mir 2 and later pressed into ISS service, was constructed in the 1980s and launched in 2000, meaning it has spent over 20 years in orbit. Mir, on the other hand, managed 15 years.

Its fate is a clue to what lies in wait for the ISS and Russia's contribution. ®

Further reading

Mir is well documented online, although we'd recommend David Harland's The Story of Space Station Mir. Brian Harvey's Russia In Space: The Failed Frontier? was also a useful resource.

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