MOSCOW — Russia's space agency is taking out insurance against any damage the ailing Mir space station might cause when it is guided down later this month, the Russian Aerospace Agency said Tuesday.
Despite official optimism that the Mir safely plunge into a remote area of the Pacific Ocean, the space agency is negotiating with three Russian companies to insure against possible damage, a premium estimated at $200 million.
"The insurance is just another attempt to assuage fears," Russian Aerospace Agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov said during an Internet news conference.
He added that the three Russian insurance companies expected to participate in the plan had "nothing to fear," because the orbiter's fall would be safe.
Mir will most likely be brought down into the Pacific Ocean between March 18 and 20, although no exact date has been set, Gorbunov said.
The space agency will pay the insurance costs from its own pocket, because the state budget doesn't provide for it, he said.
Gorbunov wouldn't give further details, saying the contract was still being finalized.
The long history of Mir's glitches, including a fire, a near-disastrous collision with a cargo ship and a string of computer breakdowns and power outages, has fed fears that it could spin out of control and rain debris on populated areas.
Japan has been especially concerned, because Mir is expected to pass over its territory on its final, low orbit. "We have grown tired of repeating that there was no danger for Japan," Gorbunov said.
One of Mir's designers, Leonid Gorshkov, also sought Tuesday to play down public fears. "Debris from dozens of booster rockets and hundreds of meteorites annually reach Earth and nothing terrible happens," Gorshkov said at a separate news conference.
Gorbunov said Tuesday that space officials are now waiting for the station to naturally drift down to an orbit about 155 miles from Earth instead of using up precious fuel to speed up the descent.
"We don't want to spend extra fuel to lower its orbit," Gorbunov said, adding that it's necessary to save as much fuel as possible to make sure that Mir's de-orbit is properly controlled.
After Mir reaches the 160-mile orbit by the end of this week, space officials will take a series of steps to prepare for when a Progress cargo ship docked with the station will fire its engines and send the 143-ton station hurtling down.
The most tricky part will include bringing Mir, which is now rotating slowly, to a fixed position in orbit. The process would require a lot of power, and Mir's batteries are old and unstable. Most of Mir will burn up when it enters the atmosphere, but some 1,500 fragments with a weight of up to 28 tons are expected to survive the re-entry and fall over the ocean between Australia and Chile.
In 1978, a Soviet satellite crashed in northern Canada, scattering radioactive fragments over the wilderness but causing no injuries. A year later, the unoccupied U.S. Skylab space station fell to Earth, spreading debris over western Australia. No one was hurt.