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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mir's Fall From Orbit Has Japan Worried

TOKYO — Talk about a worst-case scenario.

A rocket engine misfires somewhere over Africa, sending 130 tons of Russian space junk out of a low orbit to rain down on Japan’s main island. There is no time to respond, no way to deflect the screaming shards to the ocean where they were intended to go.

The chances of any of this actually happening, the experts say, are 1,000 to 1. At worst.

But that hasn’t kept Japan’s government from expressing concern and the media from bombarding readers with shrill what-if reports that when Russia brings the Mir space station down to Earth next month it may fall on a populous swath of Japan.

"Is Mir’s re-entry really safe?" warned a headline this week on the front page of Asahi, a major newspaper. Similar stories have been run in other papers recently and picked up by the TV networks as well.

The media attention is causing some jitters.

"The likelihood may be low, but the fact that it is possible is something that people should recognize and be concerned about," said Shunsuke Yamada, a 22-year-old college student.

The Mir space station will be brought back down to Earth in mid-March over the South Pacific between Australia and Chile.

Some 1,500 fragments of 20 kilograms or more — the largest could weigh as much as 700 kilograms — are expected to fall over the target area, which is 200 kilometers wide by 5,760 kilometers long.

But a very small error in predicting the trajectory of the debris — an unexpected atmospheric condition, for example — could translate into a significant change in the splashdown locale.

"Even if everything goes well, you can’t be sure of where it will be until just 30 minutes before the debris hits," said Yasunori Matogawa, professor of orbital dynamics at Japan’s Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science. "It is extremely difficult to predict."

Moscow’s past attempts at disposing of space junk have been spotty.

A Soviet defense satellite plunged out of control and left radioactive debris in a sparsely populated area in the Canadian Arctic in 1978. Mir’s predecessor, Salut 7, fell on the Andes Mountains, causing no damage or injuries but generating fears worldwide in 1991.

There are perhaps other factors behind the concern.

Relations between Tokyo and Moscow have never been very close. A dispute over several small islands in the North Pacific, the Kurils, occupied by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II, has kept them from signing a peace treaty, and a general feeling of distrust between their governments runs deep.

Still, experts stress the likelihood of Mir doing any damage here is miniscule.

According to the latest estimate, Mir is to fly over the Kansai area in western Japan at an altitude of 180 kilometers around March 13. If all goes well, this is the last populated area it is to pass over.

But the aging Mir, launched on Feb. 20, 1986, has suffered several accidents, including a fire in February 1997 and a near fatal collision with an unmanned cargo ship four months later.

That’s not very comforting for those under its final path.