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Japanese looking up, hoping for a Mir miss

TOKYO — Despite reassurances that the controlled plunge of the Mir space station poses no threat to Japan, a public safety official on Friday said the government may urge people to stay indoors to avoid being hit by debris.

Japan's southernmost islands are the last populated area that the 15-year-old space station is likely to pass over before it breaks up and crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Russia plans to take the Mir out of orbit on March 22, in a controlled, fiery plunge into the water between Australia and Chile.

Moscow has repeatedly assured Tokyo that there is nothing to fear, and the Japanese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the chances of anyone actually being hit by debris are less than one in 100 million.

Even so, the official with Japan's National Security and Crisis Management Center said that if Mir does pass over populated areas, the public will be notified to stay inside for about 40 minutes.

Japan has already sent six experts to Russia to monitor the plan to bring Mir down from orbit. Defense Agency Chief Toshitsugu Saito postponed a meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington next week, in case something goes wrong with Mir.

The government's unusually cautious position may reflect an effort to rebuild its image after Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was sharply criticized in Parliament for continuing to play golf last month after learning that a U.S. submarine sank a Japanese high school fishing boat.

Nine crew members — including several high school students — are missing and presumed dead.

By coincidence, Mori is scheduled to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Irkutsk, Russia on March 25, just days after Mir's scheduled plunge.

Most of the 150-ton space 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.

New Zealand, meanwhile, issued international warnings to ships and aircraft travelling in the South Pacific area where Mir space station is due to break.

However, air and maritime safety officials say they don't expect shipping and air traffic to be at serious risk from debris falling into the watery "space junk graveyard."

New Zealand is in charge of monitoring air and sea traffic in the splashdown area about 4,000 km (2,500 miles) east of the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island.