A Russian cargo ship blasted off Wednesday on a mission to dock with the unmanned Mir space station and then help destroy the last remaining symbol of Soviet space glory by pushing it into Earth's atmosphere.
The unmanned Progress M1-5 cargo ship, carrying twice the usual amount of fuel, was launched as scheduled at 7:28 a.m. Moscow time from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan, said Mission Control spokeswoman Vera Medvedkova.
The rocket lifted off into a clear sky over the desert, and successfully entered orbit 12 minutes after liftoff. The ship is scheduled to dock with the 15-year-old station early Saturday, Medvedkova said.
The extra fuel carried by the Progress will be used to fire Mir's thrusters and push the 140-ton station down toward Earth for discarding in a remote area in the Pacific Ocean. The station's demise is tentatively set for March 6.
The Progress' launch was originally scheduled last Thursday but was delayed after a sudden power loss disabled Mir's central computer and its orientation system. Russian controllers quickly fixed the problem, but encountered a new one over the weekend when Mir's gyroscopes failed.
The gyroscopes are the preferred, fuel-free way of aligning the station. The craft can also be steered using dozens of small thrusters.
If anything goes awry, an emergency crew is on standby to blast off for Mir and direct the cargo ship's docking and subsequent descent.
The decision to dump Mir was made by the government last fall against the protests of many cosmonauts, space officials and politicians. But the government lacked cash to keep Mir in orbit, and private investors have failed to raise enough money to continue its operation.
A string of accidents, including a fire and a near fatal collision with an unmanned cargo ship in 1997, have raised concerns about its safety and precipitated its discarding. The U.S. space agency NASA had also urged Russia to abandon Mir and concentrate its scarce resources on the new International Space Station.
In December a power outage cut all links between Mir and ground control, the worst communications breakdown in its 15-year history.
Although contact was restored after 24 hours, unnerved space chiefs later admitted that they feared at one stage they would never regain control of the 130-ton craft.
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