PLEASE NOTE:


*

CCNet 28/2001 - 19 February 2001
--------------------------------

"I suggest naming the National Spaceguard Center after the noted
astronomer Ernst Oepik and locating it at Armagh Observatory where he
worked and published the Irish Astronomical Journal. Many of his
pioneering publications dealt with comets and meteorites. Thanks to him,
Britain's leading NEO experts are based there now. Since Oepik also did
pioneering work on impacts, he published some of the first scientific
studies about the potential hazards of cosmic impacts."
--S. Fred Singer, 19 February 2001
 

"Right now, Andrew Santo and his colleagues at The Johns Hopkins
University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) are basking in the glow of
success. Last Monday their creation, the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft, made
history's first landing on an asteroid, bringing a spectacular finale
to a year of scientific discovery. But seven years ago, you wouldn't have
wanted Santo's job. That's when NASA handed APL a Space Age mission
impossible: Design, build and test the first spacecraft to orbit an
asteroid, do it for a fraction of what most deep-space missions cost,
and do it in just 24 months. The mission, called NEAR, was to open a new
chapter in deep-space exploration by becoming the first in NASA's so-
called Discovery missions, whose mandate included development times of less
than 3 years."
--Andrew Chaikin, Space.com, 15 February 2001



(1) NEAR DATA EXPECTED FROM EROS SURFACE
    Space.com, 16 February 2001

(2) NEAR SHOEMAKER: THE LITTLE SPACECRAFT THAT COULD
    Space.com, 15 February 2001

(3) THE SUN DOES A FLIP: SOLAR MAXIMUM IS HERE
    NASA SCIENCE News, 15 February 2001

(4) CLUSTER'S NEW VIEW OF NEAR-EARTH SPACE
    Andrew Yee <ayee@nova.astro.utoronto.ca>

(5) TRAVELING TO THE DAWN OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM
    Ron Baalke <baalke@jpl.nasa.gov>

(6) COPING WITH NATURAL DISASTERS
    Stanford News Service <stanford.report@forsythe.stanford.edu>

(7) WORKSHOP ON EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE ON DISASTER MANAGEMENT
    ESA <esaweb@esa.int>

(8) WHY BRITAIN'S NEO CENTRE SHOULD BE NAMED IN HONOUR OF ERNST OEPIK
    S. Fred Singer <singer@sepp.org>

(9) ASTEROID OWNERS LIABLE FOR IMPACT DAMAGE?
    Graham Richard Pointer <grp1@st-andrews.ac.uk>

(10) DIETZ AND GLIKSON ON IMPACT VOLCANISM AND P/Tr
     Hermann Burchard <burchar@mail.math.okstate.edu>

(11) THE BREAK-UP OF PANGEA
     Timo Niroma <timo.niroma@tilmari.pp.fi]

(12) AND FINALLY: RUSSIAN COMMUNISTS BLAME U.S. FOR PUTIN'S MIR DECISION
     Andrew Yee <ayee@nova.astro.utoronto.ca>

=============
(1) NEAR DATA EXPECTED FROM EROS SURFACE

From Space.com, 16 February 2001
http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/missions/near_radio_010216.html

By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer

WASHINGTON -- This is broadcast station NEAR on your space dial. Stay tuned!

Sitting atop far flung Asteroid 433 Eros, NASA's Near Earth Asteroid
Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker spacecraft is gathering science data for
transmission to Earth over the weekend.

Following a successful soft landing on the giant chunk of space flotsam, the
probe's first on-the-spot measurements using a Gamma Ray Spectrometer should
be received by ground stations on February 18.

That Gamma Ray instrument -- either resting above or in the asteroid's rock
and dirt covering -- is focused on a 4-inch (10-centimeter) circle of Eros.
An abundance of several important elements, such as potassium, silicon and
iron can be measured. Using gamma rays, the device detects specific elements
in the asteroid's surface.

Mission controllers at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics
Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland report that commands have been sent to
NEAR Shoemaker to start science operations on the asteroid's surface. APL
both designed and is managing the asteroid surveying craft for NASA.

Data is being collected by both the Gamma Ray Spectrometer, as well as an
onboard magnetometer.

To date, no magnetic field has been found at Eros. Discovery of an intrinsic
magnetic field at Eros would be the first definitive detection of magnetism
at an asteroid. The find would have important implications about the space
rock's thermal and geologic history.

Contact!

"We're pretty sure the spacecraft has received commands. There's been a
voltage drain, indicating the Gamma Ray instrument is doing what it needs to
do," said Helen Worth, an APL spokeswoman.

The relaying of science data from the asteroid to Earth is expected around
11:23 a.m. EST (16:23 GMT) Sunday. However, it is likely to take until early
Monday to ascertain whether data received is useful, Worth told SPACE.com.

NASA gave the go-ahead for engineers and scientists to remain in radio lock
with NEAR Shoemaker after the craft gently touched down on Eros February 12.

The mission was to conclude two days later. A surprise to many, the probe
remained intact and in good working order after coming to a stop on the
asteroid's rocky surface.

NASA extended the mission for up to 10 days. There is the possibility of a
further extension, to assure that enough listening time from ground stations
is found.

Following four-year a journey of more than 2 billion miles (3.2 billion
kilometers), and a yearlong observational campaign around Eros, NEAR
Shoemaker braked itself onto the asteroid, plopping down at less than 4
miles per hour (between 1.5 and 1.8 meters per second).

If the science data direct from the asteroid is received on Earth, it will
be almost five years to the day after being launched.

"We're in contact and delighted," said Robert Farquhar, NEAR mission
director at APL. "We expect to have all the data that we need by the end of
February," he told SPACE.com.

High science on low-gain

The car-sized spacecraft had already gleaned 10 times more data during its
circling of Eros than originally planned. It completed all the mission's
science goals before Monday's landing on the boulder-strewn mini-world.

Science data is being slowly transmitted through the spacecraft's low-gain
antenna, at just 10 bytes per second.

"We don't know if the instrument's still working," said Jacob Trombka, NEAR
team leader for the X-ray Gamma Ray Spectrometer at NASA's Goddard Space
Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The detectors are very hardy. The
thing I'm more worried about is the wiring and all the electronic
connections," he said.

"We won't know if it's working until Sunday. We're looking forward to seeing
our first data right from the surface," Trombka told SPACE.com.

Trombka said the Gamma Ray device will take a period of time to stabilize
and provide the best and most reliable science information. The detector
itself is anywhere from in the dusty covering of Eros to sitting about a 3.3
feet (1 meter) above the surface. "It doesn't make much difference," he
said.

"Within seven days to 10 days we should have a good data set," Trombka said.
"If we get data, this is going to be an extremely good test of this sensor
for future missions, particularly for rovers on Mars," he said.

Copyright 2001, Space.com
 
==========
(2) NEAR SHOEMAKER: THE LITTLE SPACECRAFT THAT COULD

From Space.com, 15 February 2001
http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/missions/near_could_010215.html

By Andrew Chaikin
Editor, Space Illustrated Magazine
 
Right now, Andrew Santo and his colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University's
Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) are basking in the glow of success. Last
Monday their creation, the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft, made history's first
landing on an asteroid, bringing a spectacular finale to a year of
scientific discovery. But seven years ago, you wouldn't have wanted Santo's
job.

That's when NASA handed APL a Space Age mission impossible: Design, build
and test the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid, do it for a fraction of
what most deep-space missions cost, and do it in just 24 months. The
mission, called NEAR, was to open a new chapter in deep-space exploration by
becoming the first in NASA's so-called Discovery missions, whose mandate
included development times of less than 3 years.

Santo, who served as spacecraft systems engineer on the NEAR project, says
the assignment wasn't greeted with unanimous optimism at APL. "At the time
we started," he recalled, "I bet about half the team was doubtful we could
make it."

But Santo knew they had no choice. The only possible launch dates to the
target the Asteroid 433 Eros were a mere 12 days in February 1996 (and to
add to the pressure, the launch window on each of those days was only one
minute long). After that, Eros would no longer be positioned for a
spacecraft to go there easily from Earth.

Instead of being an impossible burden, however, Santo said the unforgiving
schedule was actually an advantage. "That really helped us," he said. "That
very narrow launch window helped us focus the team."

The overriding importance of the schedule pushed Santo and his teammates to
adopt an approach that was highly unorthodox in the high-tech world of
aerospace. Instead of requiring specially built components, the NEAR team
chose hardware already available and ready to use without modifications.
"I'd say 70 percent of the spacecraft components were off-the-shelf," Santo
said. That kept costs down, helping the project stay within its budget of
$113 million. Just as important, it saved time.

That doesn't mean everything went smoothly. A star tracking device procured
by the team turned out to have a faulty cooling system, decreasing its
accuracy. And engineers studying the craft's solar panels realized that if
the spacecraft was rotated into and out of the harsh sunlight of space, the
panels would expand and contract so much they could start to come apart. And
there were other snags, but the NEAR team couldn't always afford to have
them fixed. "Other people might have been forced to tell the vendor, 'Take
this box apart and fix your problem,'" Santo said. "Our concern was, if we
told the vendor to fix it, we would have missed our schedule."

In the end, Santo and his teammates managed to find ways to work around the
problems. For the solar panels, for example, the solution was to avoid
drastic changes in temperature by keeping the panels pointed at the Sun
throughout the trip to Eros. That could have been a problem for
communications, since the craft would have to be aimed directly at Earth for
the high-gain antenna to work. But tests showed that the spacecraft's
communications system would perform better than expected, and the engineers
realized they could use the craft's low-gain antenna during the
outward-bound cruise.

And it wasn't long before the mood among the NEAR team changed from
skepticism to optimism. "People had the feeling, 'Hey, we can really do
this,'" Santo recalled. "And once that feeling started to go through the
team, we had unbelievable team morale. People would work all hours of the
night and day -- not because they wanted to impress their boss, but because
they didn't want to let down the other guys on the team."

NEAR was finished in time for its planned launch on February 17, 1996, and
the nearly three-year-long trip to Eros began. Along the way, the team
refined the spacecraft's onboard computer programs, working by remote
control to fix software bugs. "What surprised me was the lack of problems
that we had," Santo said. Except for a power problem that disabled one of
the craft's scientific instruments, an infrared spectrometer, "the
spacecraft had no problems."

That is, until it reached its destination in December 1998. Instead of going
into orbit around the asteroid, NEAR mysteriously aborted its planned
maneuver and began firing thrusters wildly, spewing precious fuel into
space. "Even today we don't know what happened," Santo said.

For days, trackers on Earth had no contact with the spacecraft, prompting
chilling memories of another failed mission, Mars Observer, which was lost
just before it was to orbit Mars in 1993.

"That was the first thing that went through our minds," said APL's Thomas
Coughlin, NEAR project manager. And at the Deep Space Network (DSN), the
collection of tracking stations used to maintain contact with NASA's solar
system missions, there were dire predictions. "The guys at the DSN were
saying, 'You're going to find this thing in a million pieces.'"

But the dire predictions didn't come true. The craft's onboard safety system
kicked in and reestablished radio contact with home. "It found us, we didn't
find it," said Coughlin. By early January 1999, NEAR was on course for a
second rendezvous with Eros on Valentine's Day, 2000.

But what about the spent fuel? Would there be enough left to continue the
mission? The answer to that had been decided before NEAR left Earth.
Luckily, the NEAR team brought their creation in 11 pounds (5 kilograms)
under its assigned weight limit, allowing the craft to carry 5 extra
kilograms of fuel. That extra amount proved to be enough for the entire year
of operations at Eros. Said Santo, "That extra 5 kilograms of fuel that we
loaded probably saved the mission. It shows you that this is a tight
business. You can do 99 things right, but if you do the 100th thing wrong,
it can kill you."

Renamed in memory of the late planetary scientist, Gene Shoemaker, NEAR
Shoemaker orbited Eros for a full year, giving scientists a bounty of data
that included more than 100,000 close-up images. And then, last Monday, came
the bonus. "I think the team thought, we've been there long enough, let's
try something new," Santo said. "Let's have some fun. Let's see if we can
land this thing." Many on the project were skeptical that NEAR would survive
its landing attempt. But as Coughlin said, "We'd thought it thorough, and
knew everything had to go right. And it did go right."

NEAR Shoemaker's achievement has given NASA a badly needed success, in the
wake of two failed Mars missions in 1999. "I think it truly has raised the
bar a little bit on the new paradigm of how to do these 'Faster, Better,
Cheaper' missions," Coughlin said. "It's a perfect example of something that
did work."

At the Applied Physics Lab, meanwhile, the experience gained from the NEAR
mission will be used for other deep-space missions, including the planned
Comet Nucleus Tour and a Mercury orbiter called MESSENGER. Said Santo,
"We're looking forward to the next level of challenges."

Copyright 2001, Space.com
 
===========
(3) THE SUN DOES A FLIP: SOLAR MAXIMUM IS HERE

From NASA SCIENCE News, 15 February 2001
http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast15feb_1.htm?list154233

NASA scientists who monitor the Sun say that our star's awesome magnetic
field is flipping -- a sure sign that solar maximum is here.

February 15, 2001 -- You can't tell by looking, but scientists say the Sun
has just undergone an important change. Our star's magnetic field has
flipped.

The Sun's magnetic north pole, which was in the northern hemisphere just a
few months ago, now points south. It's a topsy-turvy situation, but not an
unexpected one.

"This always happens around the time of solar maximum," says David Hathaway,
a solar physicist at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "The magnetic poles
exchange places at the peak of the sunspot cycle. In fact, it's a good
indication that Solar Max is really here."

The Sun's magnetic poles will remain as they are now, with the north
magnetic pole pointing through the Sun's southern hemisphere, until the year
2012 when they will reverse again. This transition happens, as far as we
know, at the peak of every 11-year sunspot cycle -- like clockwork.

Earth's magnetic field also flips, but with less regularity. Consecutive
reversals are spaced 5 thousand years to 50 million years apart. The last
reversal happened 740,000 years ago. Some researchers think our planet is
overdue for another one, but nobody knows exactly when the next reversal
might occur.

Although solar and terrestrial magnetic fields behave differently, they do
have something in common: their shape. During solar minimum the Sun's field,
like Earth's, resembles that of an iron bar magnet, with great closed loops
near the equator and open field lines near the poles. Scientists call such a
field a "dipole." The Sun's dipolar field is about as strong as a
refrigerator magnet, or 50 gauss (a unit of magnetic intensity). Earth's
magnetic field is 100 times weaker.

When solar maximum arrives and sunspots pepper the face of the Sun, our
star's magnetic field begins to change. Sunspots are places where intense
magnetic loops -- hundreds of times stronger than the ambient dipole field
-- poke through the photosphere.

"Meridional flows on the Sun's surface carry magnetic fields from
mid-latitude sunspots to the Sun's poles," explains Hathaway. "The poles end
up flipping because these flows transport south-pointing magnetic flux to
the north magnetic pole, and north-pointing flux to the south magnetic
pole." The dipole field steadily weakens as oppositely-directed flux
accumulates at the Sun's poles until, at the height of solar maximum, the
magnetic poles change polarity and begin to grow in a new direction.

Hathaway noticed the latest polar reversal in a "magnetic butterfly
diagram." Using data collected by astronomers at the U.S. National Solar
Observatory on Kitt Peak, he plotted the Sun's average magnetic field, day
by day, as a function of solar latitude and time from 1975 through the
present. The result is a sort of strip chart recording that reveals evolving
magnetic patterns on the Sun's surface. "We call it a butterfly diagram," he
says, "because sunspots make a pattern in this plot that looks like the
wings of a butterfly."

In the butterfly diagram, pictured below, the Sun's polar fields appear as
strips of uniform color near 90 degrees latitude. When the colors change (in
this case from blue to yellow or vice versa) it means the polar fields have
switched signs.

The ongoing changes are not confined to the space immediately around our
star, Hathaway added. The Sun's magnetic field envelops the entire solar
system in a bubble that scientists call the "heliosphere." The heliosphere
extends 50 to 100 astronomical units (AU) beyond the orbit of Pluto. Inside
it is the solar system -- outside is interstellar space.

"Changes in the Sun's magnetic field are carried outward through the
heliosphere by the solar wind," explains Steve Suess, another solar
physicist at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "It takes about a year for
disturbances to propagate all the way from the Sun to the outer bounds of
the heliosphere."

Because the Sun rotates (once every 27 days) solar magnetic fields corkscrew
outwards in the shape of an Archimedian spiral. Far above the poles the
magnetic fields twist around like a child's Slinky toy.

Because of all the twists and turns, "the impact of the field reversal on
the heliosphere is complicated," says Hathaway. Sunspots are sources of
intense magnetic knots that spiral outwards even as the dipole field
vanishes. The heliosphere doesn't simply wink out of existence when the
poles flip -- there are plenty of complex magnetic structures to fill the
void.

Or so the theory goes.... Researchers have never seen the magnetic flip
happen from the best possible point of view -- that is, from the top down.

But now, the unique Ulysses spacecraft may give scientists a reality check.
Ulysses, an international joint venture of the European Space Agency and
NASA, was launched in 1990 to observe the solar system from very high solar
latitudes. Every six years the spacecraft flies 2.2 AU over the Sun's poles.
No other probe travels so far above the orbital plane of the planets.

"Ulysses just passed under the Sun's south pole," says Suess, a mission
co-Investigator. "Now it will loop back and fly over the north pole in the
fall."

"This is the most important part of our mission," he says. Ulysses last flew
over the Sun's poles in 1994 and 1996, during solar minimum, and the craft
made several important discoveries about cosmic rays, the solar wind, and
more. "Now we get to see the Sun's poles during the other extreme: Solar
Max. Our data will cover a complete solar cycle."

To learn more about the Sun's changing magnetic field and how it is
generated, please visit "The Solar Dynamo," a web page prepared by the
NASA/Marshall solar research group. Updates from the Ulysses spacecraft may
be found on the Internet from JPL at http://ulysses.jpl.nasa.gov.

========
(4) CLUSTER'S NEW VIEW OF NEAR-EARTH SPACE

From Andrew Yee <ayee@nova.astro.utoronto.ca>

European Space Agency
Press Information Note Nr. 01-2001
Paris, France 16 February 2001

Cluster's New View of near-Earth Space

Studies of near-Earth space will never be the same again, following the
successful commissioning of the European Space Agency's Cluster mission.

For the first time in the history of space exploration, four identical
spacecraft have been despatched to explore the invisible magnetic "bubble"
that surrounds our planet -- the magnetosphere. Dozens of instruments on
board the Cluster quartet have now begun to 'map' this region in
unprecedented detail. 

Over the next two years, Cluster will provide a unique, three-dimensional
view of the battleground between the Earth and our nearest star. Hundreds of
scientists around the world are eagerly waiting to analyse this treasure
trove of data.

The Solar-Terrestrial Battleground

Our Earth is an oasis in space -- the only haven of life yet discovered in
the entire Universe. Yet, just a few hundred kilometres above our heads, a
continuous battle is being fought between the forces of nature.

Like a ship in an everlasting storm, the Earth is bombarded by swarms of
particles that are ejected from the Sun, then sweep towards us through space
at supersonic speeds. Most of these cosmic "bullets" in the solar wind are
deflected by the planet's magnetic shield, the magnetosphere, and sail
harmlessly by.

But Earth's shield is not invulnerable. Gusts in the solar wind can squeeze
it mercilessly, pushing it back towards the planet. Weak spots in the
defences allow energetic particles to penetrate. As they cascade down the
magnetic field lines, they collide with molecules in the upper atmosphere.
One spectacular result is the aurora, beautiful curtains of light that grace
the polar skies.

Not all side-effects of solar storms are as harmless. Particularly severe
magnetic storms on our nearest star can cause havoc back on Earth, with
widespread power cuts, disrupted radio communications and damage to
satellites.

Scientists have been studying this continuous feud between the Sun and Earth
for many years, first from the ground and then with the aid of single
satellites. But the complexities of the Sun-Earth connection have always --
until now -- eluded them.

Cluster's 3-D View

Cluster is now offering the first opportunity to improve the current state
of knowledge about the magnetosphere. In the last few months, scientists
have begun to sample the first intriguing morsels from the feast of
fascinating information that will accumulate over the two-year-long duration
of the mission.

Preliminary analysis of this early data is already providing new insights
into the interaction between the electrically charged particles of the solar
wind and our planet's magnetic field.

The key to this scientific revolution is Cluster's ability to fly in close
formation along elongated orbits which take them between 19,000 and 119,000
km from the planet -- almost one third of the way to the Moon. During their
passage around the Earth, the spacecraft are sometimes inside the Earth's
magnetic shield and sometimes outside, fully exposed to the supersonic solar
wind.

As the mini-flotilla flies in a tetrahedral (lopsided pyramid) pattern
around the planet, its suite of scientific sensors studies the changes
taking place around each spacecraft. By comparing the times of these events,
scientists are able to obtain the first three-dimensional picture of
near-Earth space.

First Results

Cluster's first glimpses of the continuously fluctuating magnetic
battleground came on 9 November 2000, when the quartet made their first
crossings of the magnetopause -- the boundary between interplanetary space
(where the solar wind reigns supreme) and the Earth's region of magnetic
domination.

These crossings were a surprise for the Cluster science team, since they
occurred about one week earlier than predicted.

Data from the experiments on Cluster clearly showed that gusts in the solar
wind were causing the magnetosphere to balloon in and out. These rapid
fluctuations in size meant that the Cluster spacecraft were alternately
inside and outside Earth's magnetic field. For the first time, scientists
were able to receive data simultaneously from both sides of the magnetopause
--something that is only possible with a multi-spacecraft mission.

At the peak of the sunstorm, the spacecraft were exposed to the solar wind
for more than 2 hours until the compression of the magnetosphere decreased
and the spacecraft moved back inside the Earth's domain.

Since then, the Cluster spacecraft have made regular measurements of the
magnetopause. One of the earliest interesting discoveries has been the
confirmation of the existence of waves along this ever-shifting boundary in
space.

"They are like waves that form on the surface of a lake when the wind is
blowing," said Cluster Project Scientist, Philippe Escoubet. "The Cluster
spacecraft give us for the first time the size and speed of these waves."

"Cluster has given us the first observational proof that these waves exist,"
said Dr. Nicole Cornilleau-Wehrlin of CETP in Vélizy, Principal Investigator
on the STAFF experiment. "Further studies will enable us to discover more
about what happens and why."

By late December, the elliptical Cluster orbits carried the quartet close to
a huge shock wave in near-Earth space. This bow shock, which lies some
100,000 km from the planet, forms when particles in the solar wind slow to
subsonic speeds after slamming into Earth's magnetic shield at more than 1
million km/h. Cluster's battery of instruments is beginning to record in
great detail what happens at this turbulent barrier.

Once again, gusts in the stream of solar particles caused the magnetosphere
to behave like a punchbag undergoing heavy body blows. These "punches"
caused the bow shock to migrate through space, crossing and recrossing the
Cluster spacecraft at irregular intervals.

"This is the first time we have ever seen the bow shock in such remarkable
detail," said Professor André Balogh of Imperial College London, the
Principal Investigator for the FGM experiment on Cluster.

Comparisons of spacecraft measurements will also be invaluable for in-depth
studies of other parts of the magnetosphere. Of particular interest to
scientists are the cusps -- funnel-shaped gaps in the Earth's magnetic
shield that that guide electrified particles into the upper atmosphere.

The first Cluster observations of the north polar cusp were made on 14
January 2001, when shifts in the solar wind caused the spacecraft to pass
right through this narrow "window" in the magnetic envelope at an altitude
of about 64,000 km. The EISCAT ground-based radar in Svalbard, which lay
beneath the Cluster spacecraft at that time, confirmed the abrupt change in
the cusp's position.

Preliminary analysis of data from Cluster indicates that the upper regions
of the cusp were moving through space at around 30 km/s. Further studies of
the different data sets are expected to provide valuable new insights into
the physical processes taking place in these key regions above the Earth's
magnetic poles.

"This is a very dynamic region, but it has only been studied previously by
single spacecraft," said Dr. Escoubet. "This is why the Cluster measurements
are so important. With four spacecraft we can obtain the most accurate,
three-dimensional view of what is happening around our planet."

Cluster and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) make up the
Solar-Terrestrial Science Programme -- one of the Cornerstones of ESA's
Horizons 2000 long term science plan. Together, they are playing key roles
in international efforts to investigate the physical interaction between the
Sun and Earth.

For more information, please contact:

ESA - Communication Department
Media Relations Office
Tel: +33 (0)1.53.69.71.55
Fax: +33 (0)1.53.69.76.90

Dr. Philippe Escoubet
ESA Cluster Project Scientist
ESA - Estec (Noordwijk, Nl)
Tel: +31 71 565 3454
Email: cpescoub@estec.esa.nl

Prof. André Balogh
Principal Investigator for Cluster's FGM experiment
Imperial College (London, UK)
Tel: 44-(0)20-75947768
Email: a.balogh@ic.ac.uk

Dr. Nicole Cornilleau-Wehrlin
Principal Investigator for Cluster's STAFF experiment
CETP (Velizy, France)
Tel: 33139254898
Email: nicole.cornilleau@cetp.ipsl.fr

Further information on Cluster and the ESA Science Programme can be found on
the
World Wide Web at: http://sci.esa.int/cluster

USEFUL LINKS FOR THIS STORY

* Cluster II home page
  http://sci.esa.int/cluster/
* The instruments onboard Cluster
  http://sci.esa.int/content/doc/c6/1990_.htm
* EISCAT web site
  http://www.eiscat.uit.no/eiscat.html
* SOHO mission
  http://sohowww.estec.esa.nl/

IMAGE CAPTIONS:

[Figure 1: http://spdext.estec.esa.nl/content/doc/f7/26103_-1.jpg, 390 KB]
Main regions of the magnetosphere to be studied by Cluster.

[Figure 2: http://spdext.estec.esa.nl/content/doc/f7/26103_-2.jpg, 367 KB]
Artists' impression of a wave on the magnetopause passing by the four
Cluster
satellites. See also the MPEG movie,
     http://sci2.esa.int/cluster/videos/cluster3.mpg [1.66 MB].

[Figure 3: http://spdext.estec.esa.nl/content/doc/f7/26103_-3.jpg, 246 KB]
Data plots from the FGM instrument. Sharp decreases of the magnetic field on
SC2 (red line) indicate crossing of the bow shock. The bow shock was first
hovering very close to spacecraft 2 (06:50 to 07:03), then moved sunward of
all four spacecraft (07:03 to 07:12). Later it stayed between spacecraft 2
and
the other three spacecraft. Data courtesy of FGM Principal Investigator,
Prof.
Andre Balogh (Imperial College, London, UK).

[Figure 4: http://spdext.estec.esa.nl/content/doc/f7/26103_-4.jpg, 310 KB]
Artists' impression of the Cluster spacecraft crossing the polar cusp.
Particles from the solar wind precipitate through the polar cusp and reach
the Earth's atmosphere.

[Figure 5: http://spdext.estec.esa.nl/content/doc/f7/26103_-5.jpg, 340 KB]
Data plots from the CIS instrument. These data plots from the CIS experiment
on three Cluster spacecraft show the measured population of ions (charged
particles) with energy from about 30 eV up to about 30 KeV between 07 and
17 GMT on 14 January 2001. The polar cusp was encountered between 13:30 and
13:50. Detailed comparison of the data on the different spacecraft indicates
that the polar cusp was moving toward the Cluster spacecraft at a speed
between 10 and 30 km/s. The motion of the cusp in relation to Cluster is
shown on the left. Data courtesy of CIS Principal Investigator, Prof. Henri
Reme and CIS Co-Investigator Jean-Michel Bosqued (CESR, Toulouse, France).

==========
(5) TRAVELING TO THE DAWN OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM

From Ron Baalke <baalke@jpl.nasa.gov>

http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/missions/dawn_mission_010216.html

Traveling to the Dawn of the Solar System
By John G. Watson
space.com
16 February 2001

Pasadena, Calif.-- The Dawn mission is a "compare and contrast" assignment
of mammoth proportions: visit two vastly varying asteroids left over from
the beginning of our solar system and find out what they're made of.

Last month, NASA chose the Dawn mission, which will take nine years to visit
two primordial asteroids, for detailed study as a candidate for the agency's
Discovery Missions Program.

Targeting the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn will first orbit
Vesta, a dry rock thought to be the source of many meteorites that have
impacted Earth, and then Ceres, considered a water-rich asteroid that likely
does not have a metallic core, unlike Vesta.

Full story here:
http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/missions/dawn_mission_010216.html

==========
(6) COPING WITH NATURAL DISASTERS

From Stanford News Service <stanford.report@forsythe.stanford.edu>

2/8/01

CONTACT: Mark Shwartz, News Service (650) 723-9296;
                   mshwartz@stanford.edu

COMMENT: W. Gary Ernst, Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences
                     (650) 723-0815; ernst@pangea.stanford.edu

                     Anne S. Kiremidjian, Department of Civil &
Environmental                      Engineering
                     (650) 723-4164; kiremidjian@ce.stanford.edu

EDITORS: Professors W. Gary Ernst and Anne S. Kiremidjian will participate
in the symposium, ``Pacific Rim natural disasters - social, economic and
political impacts,`` at the annual meeting of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science on Sat., Feb. 17, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. PT, at
the Hilton San Francisco & Towers, 333 O`Farrell St., San Francisco, CA
94102. For more information, see the AAAS website at
http://www.aaas.org/meetings

EMBARGOED until Sat., Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. PT

Relevant Web URLs:
http://www.crowding-rim.org
http://www.usgs.gov
http://blume.stanford.edu

Coping with natural disasters along the Pacific Rim

The Pacific Rim is home to nearly two billion people from widely diverse
cultures and backgrounds, yet all share a common predicament: Sooner or
later, a natural disaster will touch their lives.

"Tsunamis, earthquakes, mudflows, tropical storms - nowhere is the Pacific
Rim free of these natural hazards," says geologist W. Gary Ernst, the
Benjamin M. Page Professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford.

Ernst will moderate a symposium on the social, economic and political
impacts of geological and climatic catastrophes in the Pacific Rim - a vast
region that includes the Pacific coasts of Australia, Asia and the Americas
- during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco Feb. 17.

Quakes, volcanoes and tsunamis

Ernst points out that Pacific Rim nations are routinely subjected to
earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis - the inevitable consequence of
powerful tectonic forces constantly shaping the region.

For example, major earthquakes regularly occur along California`s San
Andreas fault - a giant fracture in the Earth that marks the boundary
between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. Continuous grinding
between those two massive plates produces underground stresses that
eventually trigger destructive quakes up and down the fault system.

While the San Andreas is California`s best known fault, Ernst points out
that the entire state is at risk - along with the rest of the Pacific Rim.

``Ground shaking and loss of life and property have been constant dangers in
the past,`` he notes, ``as evidenced by the devastation at Anchorage, Alaska
(1964); Mexico City (1985); Kobe, Japan (1995) and Chi-Chi, Taiwan (1999).
Because of the inexorable, continuing differential movements of tectonic
plates around the Pacific Basin, earthquakes assuredly will accompany us in
the future.``

Volcanoes are another hazard in many parts of the region. The 1883 eruption
of Krakatoa between Java and Sumatra produced a devastating tsunami that
killed some 36,000 people. A century later, a much smaller volcanic eruption
in Colombia triggered a catastrophic mudflow that left some 23,000 dead.
Since 1980, volcanic activity has forced tens of thousands to flee their
homes in Alaska, Washington State, Mexico and the Philippines.

``As populations in the Pacific Rim continue to grow, such disasters are apt
to cause even greater hardship,`` Ernst warns.

Climate catastrophes

In addition to geologic hazards, the Pacific Rim is routinely subjected to
meteorological catastrophes in the form of typhoons, floods and droughts.
These extreme climatic events are made worse every few years by the
occurrence of unusually warm ocean conditions - the phenomenon known as El
Ni-o.

 ``The Pacific Ocean - the world`s largest body of water - is the spawning
ground for the planet`s most powerful cyclonic systems,`` says Ernst.

He points out that the Pacific receives an enormous input of solar energy,
especially in the tropics, producing powerful storms that ``rival and often
exceed geologic disasters in terms of loss of life and property.``

Tropical storms in the Pacific also have a tremendous impact on the rest of
the planet, particularly in the heavily populated Indian Ocean region. Ernst
points out that, since 1970, some 738,000 residents of Bangladesh have died
in coastal flooding caused by powerful tropical cyclones.

Managing disaster

Several speakers invited to the AAAS symposium will address ways that
Pacific Rim nations can manage the human and financial cost of catastrophe.

Anne S. Kiremidjian, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at
Stanford, will discuss the importance of making accurate assessments of
economic loss following a catastrophic earthquake.

 Kiremidjian will focus on several recent quakes, including the large
temblor that devastated Chi-chi, Taiwan, on Sept. 21, 1999. Nearly 2,500
people died in that event, and damages were estimated at between $20 and $30
billion. How well these estimates reflect actual loss is a question often
raised by public officials, insurance executives and other business leaders,
she notes.

Kiremidjian and her colleagues have developed analytical models that permit
more accurate forecasts of potential earthquake damage based on specific
conditions, such as the severity of ground motion and the structural
integrity of buildings in the area.

``In order to maximize the chance of survival in earthquake country,`` says
Ernst, ``individuals and organizations need to plan for the inevitable `big
one.` The question is not whether such shaking will occur, but when.``

Alcira Kreimer of the World Bank`s Disaster Management Facility will focus
on the indirect socioeconomic impact of disasters, particularly in
developing nations.

``Between 1990 and 1998, more than 97 percent of all natural
disaster-related deaths were in developing countries,`` she says, adding
that the average economic loss during a disaster as a proportion of gross
domestic production is 20 percent higher in developing countries than in
industrialized nations.

Stephen Guptill of the U.S. Geological Survey will discuss efforts to
control outbreaks of diseases that often occur in the aftermath of a
disaster - including cholera and typhoid, which are caused by contaminated
water supplies.

Other speakers will discuss the role of homeowners and insurance companies
in managing earthquake risk, as well as community efforts to assess the risk
of hazards before they occur.

``This is the century of the Pacific Rim - a region of spectacular
sociopolitical, economic and cultural growth,`` observes Ernst, noting that
when disaster strikes Taiwan or Silicon Valley, the economic repercussions
are felt half a world away.

``Natural disaster reduction must be coordinated across and transcend
political boundaries if we are to be more effective in the future,`` he
concludes. ``Such transnational sociopolitical policies will only be
implemented, however, as populations at risk and their governments come to
understand the true cost of inaction.``

By Mark Shwartz

=========
(7) WORKSHOP ON EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE ON DISASTER MANAGEMENT

From ESA <esaweb@esa.int>

The European Space Agency and the European Commission's Information Society
Directorate-General are jointly organising a workshop on "A European
Perspective on Disaster Management" at ESA's ESRIN establishment in
Frascati, Italy, from 27 February to 1 March.

The workshop will present ongoing ESA and European Union projects related to
management of disasters, caused by flood and fire in particular. It will
introduce ESA's Data User Programme (DUP) and EU-funded projects, discussing
the user's viewpoint in the context of the Cliff (CLuster Initiative for
Flood and Fire Emergencies) and Formidable (Friendly Operational Risk
Management through Interoperable Decision Aid Based on Local Environment)
initiatives.

The aim is to stimulate direct interaction and exchange of information
between operational and scientific user communities and development and
service industries on topics such as methodologies, systems, user needs,
information handling and services, focusing mainly on flood and fire cases.

About 100 participants from European civil protection entities, user
communities, space agencies and service industries will be attending.

A poster session and a presentation of the International Charter on Space
and Major Disasters are included in the programme.

In parallel with the workshop, a meeting of the GMES (Global Monitoring for
Environment and Security) working group on disaster management is being
organised at ESRIN.

The workshop starts at 09h00 on 27 February. It is open to the press. If
interested, please inform Franca Morgia by fax at +39 06 94180952.

 
For more information, please contact:

Luigi Fusco
ESA-ESRIN
Earth Observation Applications Department
Tel. +39 06 94180530, Fax +39 06 94180552
Email: Luigi.Fusco@esa.int

Franca Morgia
ESA-ESRIN
Communications Office
Tel. +39 06 94180951, Fax+39 06 94180952
Email: Franca.Morgia@esa.int

============================
* LETTERS TO THE MODERATOR *
============================

(8) WHY BRITAIN'S NEO CENTRE SHOULD BE NAMED IN HONOUR OF ERNST OEPIK

From S. Fred Singer <singer@sepp.org>

Dear Benny

I suggest naming the National Spaceguard Center after the noted astronomer
Ernst Oepik and locating it at Armagh Observatory where he worked and
published the Irish Astronomical Journal.

Many of his pioneering publications dealt with comets and meteorites. Thanks
to him, Britain's leading NEO experts are based there now.

Since Oepik also did pioneering work on impacts, he published some of the
first scientific studies about the potential hazards of cosmic impacts. He
told me that he became interested in the Tunguska impact when he was an
astronomer at the Alma Ata observatory after WW I.

He worked mostly in Estonia before WW II (with a little time out at the
Harvard Observatory), came to Hamburg, and from there to Armagh. He wrote an
enormous amount on everything from meteors to cosmology, as a sole author.
He also found time to compose music for the piano.

On a personal note: I "discovered" Ernst Opik around 1956 by reading his
papers and was so impressed that I invited him to become a visiting
professor at the University of Maryland. While there, the US National
Academy of Sciences awarded him the Leonard Gold Medal. We interacted
closely for nearly a decade and published on meteorites, exospheres, and
lunar and planetary atmospheres. I may well be the only person with whom he
ever coauthored scientific papers.  I certainly learned a great deal from
him.

Best wishes     

Fred

P.S. About 30 years ago, I looked into the possibility of changing the orbit
of Phobos (to save it from a sure death from tidal forces that cause its
orbit to spiral into Mars). It was picked up by TIME mag at the time and
made a modest splash.

Since there was plenty of time, the idea was to use a nuclear reactor as an
energy source and use Phobos material as the propellant.

S. Fred Singer, President
Science & Environmental Policy Project
http://www.sepp.org

**********
"The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge
authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind
faith the one unpardonable sin."
Thomas H. Huxley
**********
"If the facts change, I'll change my opinion. What do you do, sir? "  
J. M. Keynes
***********

=================
(9) ASTEROID OWNERS LIABLE FOR IMPACT DAMAGE?

From Graham Richard Pointer <grp1@st-andrews.ac.uk>

Re: U.S. COMPANY CLAIMS IT OWNS EROS 
    http://www.OrbDev.com

My office-mates and I were trying to work out the legal implications - if
Eros crashed into the Earth, could those affected sue this company for the
damage caused?

Any lawyers out there?

Graham

----------------------------------------------------------------
Graham Richard Pointer
Dept of Physics and Astronomy
North Haugh
St Andrews
Fife
KY16 9SS
Scotland

http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~grp1

=========
(10) DIETZ AND GLIKSON ON IMPACT VOLCANISM AND P/Tr

From Hermann Burchard <burchar@mail.math.okstate.edu>

Dear Benny,

two distinguished scientists have suggested impact volcanism in connection
with mantle plumes and flood basalts in general, and with the end-Permian
Sibirian traps in particular.

Andrew Glikson, a regular contributor to CCNet, in 1998 explained impact
causation of flood basalts and mantle plumes by adiabatic melting, an
expression equivalent to melting by phase transition.

"Oceanic impacts by projectiles Dp>=5 km result in excavation of
lithosphere and adiabatic melting on scales comparable to oceanic
Large Igneous Provinces (LIP)."
Full text at CCNet 14 Sept 1998.

Robert Dietz, who in 1961 discovered that the Sudbury, Ontario, volcanic
complex is an astrobleme or impact scar, in 1991 indicated that the impact
site for the P/Tr extinction is at Noril'sk in Sibiria.

   "Although the geologic relationships between the ore and the country
rock at Noril'sk remain enigmatic, it seems a remarkable Sudbury
look-alike.  Their ore mineralogy is similar, including platimum group
metals, and they are both large scale (one Noril'sk sulfide body covers
2 sq km and is 20 m thick).  Naldrett et al. ... believe that the
Noril'sk ores and adjacent Siberian plateau basalts are intimately related
and consanguineous. A similar view was offered by several other authors
at the 1991 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting symposium (Noril'sk
Siberia: Basalts, Intrusions, and Ores). Using argon/argon laser
fusions, Dalrymple et al. ... assigned a date for the ores and flood basalt
of 249 +- 1 Ma, indistinguishable from the Permian/Triassic boundary. We,
therefore, suggest that the Noril'sk ores may be of cosmogenic parenthood
and that this impact also triggered the Siberian plateau basalts. An
associated event then might be the great extinction of life forms at
the P/Tr boundary, all tied together as an event horizon." 
Full text at
http://cass.jsc.nasa.gov/pub/meetings/programs/sudburywa.txt

Ranking Noril'sk as a Sudbury look-alike, we must assume that Dietz
considers this to be the actual impact site.  The city is located at 69.3N
88.0E to the South of the Taimyr peninsula on the Western edge of the
Sibirian plateau. The edge is marked by the Pyasina river as it flows past
the city.

Indicating the land-part of the track left behind by the moving mantle plume
and hotspot, hills stretch from Noril'sk toward the East as far as the
Kolyma river, bearing gold and diamonds.  In Far East Sibiria, the track
eventually meets up with the Emperor-Hawai'i chain at the confluence
(cusp shaped) of the Kamchatka and Aleutian tectonic trenches.

From Noril'sk to Kilauea crater on the island of Hawai'i at 19.4N 155.28W
it's a 8970 km distance along a greatest circle.  For a P/Tr age of 250Ma
this amounts to a crustal movement over the mantle of 36 mm/a, a fairly
typical value.  The occasional kink in the track (as near Midway Island)
does not seem very significant.  A slight shortening of the track due to
subduction is a possibility.

Dietz' term "platinum group metals" presumably includes iridium? Even though
ir was not ejected to great distances, it seems to be mined at the impact
site.

Antipodal effects on the Falkland plateau should be considered, see Duncan
Steele, "Rogue Asteroids...".

Living here in the US, the similarity is striking with the track of the
mid-Miocene impact hotspot, at present located under Yellowstone Park. It
left a 10Ma trace of volcanic rocks in Washington (Columbia river flood
basalts) and Idaho. If the exact impact site is not known, one would look
for it at the Western edge of the Columbia basalt plateau. In India, the
Deccan traps may be related to the giant crater near Bombay, recently found,
again at the Western margin of the plateau. If this was the same age with
Chicxulub there should be no surprise. We have learned multiple impacts,
over short or long intervals, to be the rule, not the exception. Canterbury
monks in 1178 CE may have witnessed about a dozen impacts in short
succession on the new moon shortly after sunset on one evening, to mention
an example.

The Chicxulub impact also resulted in a hotspot, again traveling East at
about 40mm/a, leaving behind its tell-tale chain of volcanic mountains, the
Greater and Lesser Antilles, covering as it went a distance of about 2600 km
over 65Ma.

Thanks for considering my remarks. I appreciate Michael Paine's note, his
web pages were very helpful in gathering up some of the above facts, thanks!

Regards,

Hermann Burchard

==========
(11) THE BREAK-UP OF PANGEA

From Timo Niroma <timo.niroma@tilmari.pp.fi]

Dear Benny,

Missing iridium and missing crater have been the greatest obstacles that
have restrained even a debate about the possibility of an impact 251 million
years ago. The event, however, caused the greatest catastrophe on Earth at
least during the last half billion years. The word catastrophe is here used
in a neutral fashion, meaning a total change in circumstances in a very
short time.

I think that both obstacles can easily be dismissed, so that research and
discussion about this event could freely flow.

I suggest here the scenario of a giant impact, not as the only possible
hypothesis, but perhaps the most probable one that comes to my mind as
explaining waht may have happened with a single initiating event.

The missing iridium can be explained in many ways. The first possibility is
that the impactor did not contain much iridium. The other possibility is
that most of the iridium has been diluted in the ocean and the continental
layer of iridium has been dispersed during the hundreds of millions of years
when the continents have moved, crashed, erosed. The third possibility is
that the iridium is deep in the Earth if the impactor was huge enough to go
deep enough in the mantle of the Earth.

The missing crater was the main embarrassment regarding the K/T impact
proposal, but did not hinder the growing acceptance of the Alvarez
hypothesis during the 1980's. It took about 10 years to find Chiczulub. But
for many scientists its discovery was only the logical confirmation of  an
already very probable scenario.

Now, to my opinion, the crater in question is not missing. It is so huge,
and today so distorted, that we miss the obvious. I suggest that Pangea, 252
million years ago, was a whole continent, the only continent and nothing
than a continent. The Tethys sea *is* the crater. It rifted up  Pangea from
deep inside to the coast. This explains why life almost disappeared both
from land areas and seas. The impacting body must have been huge, with a
diameter in the 100-500 km in size. It burned the whole continent making the
nearest mountains for hundreds of kilometers to melt and for a while behave
like a liquid. The sea boiled in comparable style within hundreds of
kilometers. The steam and burning lava filled the atmosphere for a long
time, some boulders probably even escaping from Earth with a velocity that
caused them never to come back.

The impact ribbed off Pangea first in the southern and northern part and
thus put into going the still ongoing continental drift, plate tectonics,
which today shows already some signs of turning reverse. Antarctica began to
move South, as well as Australia, Europe made a swing to northwest, tearing
the Mediterranian Sea between it and Africa. The tens of kilometers deep
liquidifying wave stopped only where today is the mid ridge of the Atlantic
Ocean, thus pushing the two parts of America wider away. This rift upwells
still magma from deep.

This scenario also explains the Siberian traps. They consist of the magma
that the deep diving impactor poured upwards when exploding in the deep
interior, the beginning of the explosion causing the Tethys.

Now what I hope by suggesting this hypothesis is that scientists who work
with the dilemma of what happened 251 million years ago consider these
events also from the above perspective. I would be very grateful if some of
them could show the possible flaws in my scenario. I would be more than
happy to further discuss this issue.

Timo Niroma

=============
(12) AND FINALLY: RUSSIAN COMMUNISTS BLAME U.S. FOR PUTIN'S MIR DECISION

From Andrew Yee <ayee@nova.astro.utoronto.ca>

[ http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/spacedocumentary/story/0,2763,439632,00.html ]

Sunday, February 18, 2001

Russians beg Putin to save Mir

As the ageing space station nears its watery grave, millions mourn the
passing of a national status symbol

By Amelia Gentleman in Moscow and Robin McKie, The Observer

To the West, it is a dilapidated rustbucket whose demise cannot come soon
enough. European and US space officials are already rubbing their hands. But
to Russia, the Mir space station -- now scheduled to splash into the Pacific
between 13 and 18 March -- remains a potent symbol of patriotic pride.

Its destruction is viewed as a betrayal of the nation's once-glorious space
history. "We will become a banana republic without any bananas," says
cosmonaut Georgy Grechko, who blames the US for engineering the death of Mir
and Russia's space programme. "America will siphon off a few hundred of our
best specialists, but some 100,000 will be out of work."

It costs £150 million a year to keep Mir in orbit, a price Russia can no
longer afford if it is to participate in the US-led International Space
Station now being constructed above Earth. Hence Putin's decision to axe the
craft that has been dubbed Starship Lada by the West, but which is seen as
'130 tonnes of intellectual metal' by his countrymen.

A poll last week revealed that 67 per cent of Russians oppose the
destruction of Mir. A letter signed by former cosmonauts and rocket
scientists and 16,000 Muscovites has been handed to Putin. It claims Mir's
death sentence is 'anti-Russian'.

On Tuesday, the fifteenth anniversary of Mir's launch, thousands of
demonstrators are expected to protest about its fate, and feelings will run
high. According to the left-wing daily Soviet Russia, the government is
planning 'the killing of a living organism'.

The West may recall the station's worst year in 1997 when a fire and then a
collision with a cargo spaceship nearly destroyed Mir, but Russians prefer
to remember its other 14 years of success. Nor could the timing of Mir's end
be worse, for it has coincided with the election of a US administration
committed to the development of a sophisticated star wars defence programme.


"Russia's space programme is being destroyed," says Vyacheslav Tetekin,
leader of the Save Mir campaign. "America has squeezed everything they
needed and now they are ditching our specialists like unnecessary ballast."

Such protests are understandable, but ignore a basic fact: that the
40ft-long space ship, whose bristling solar panels give it the appearance of
a railway carriage with wings, can no longer function safely.

"The technology is outdated, and we don't have money for repairs," says
space agency official Alexei Gorbunov.

Worst of all, Mir's giant gyros are broken and the craft can only hold its
position in space by using its thruster rockets, which burn fuel at an
alarming rate. Two months ago, engineers at Star City announced they had had
enough. "We cannot continue with this game -- which I call Russian
roulette," said one.

An unmanned Progress spacecraft carrying fuel was launched and docked with
Mir a couple of weeks ago. "Now all the Russians have to do is let the craft
sink of its own accord until it reaches a critical height of 250
kilometres," said Richard Crowther of the British National Space Centre. "It
now orbits at 280km but is dropping by more than a kilometre a day."

Once it has reached 250km, Star City engineers will fire the Progress
capsule's rockets, causing Mir to slow down rapidly, and plunge into the
atmosphere. This final burn will be timed precisely to allow Mir to make a
last sweep over Asia before plummeting into the Pacific.

"In the past, 25 to 30 per cent of large spaceships survive re-entry," said
Crowther. "We can therefore expect that about 35 tonnes worth of Mir will
still hit Earth -- at about 120mph -- though not in one lump. There should
be a spray of bits and pieces that will fall into the sea."

Mir should have reached its 250km re-entry height by now, but has been saved
by -- of all things -- the sun. "We are going through an intense period of
solar activity called the Solar Max which heats up the upper atmosphere,
causing it to rise and drag on Mir and thus slow it down," said Crowther.

"But for some mysterious reason that activity stopped a few weeks ago. The
drag on Mir has been reduced, and this has extended its life."

The sun's intervention has therefore given Mir an unexpected stay of
execution, but not one that will soothe the feelings of the spaceship's
millions of Russian fans.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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