Russia's aging space station Mir, a unique orbiting scientific laboratory, is making a gradual, controlled descent and will fall to Earth as a fireball at a designated point by the end of next year.
However the precision of the fall will depend on how the cash-strapped Russian government finances its Mir program, Viktor Blagov, deputy head of Mission Control, said on Friday."Since January this year, we have received no money at all from the state," another senior space official told Reuters.
A crew of two or three cosmonauts is working constantly in Mir. Every three months, they receive food, water, oxygen and equipment from supply ships, which can also be used to correct the station's orbit when necessary.
Blagov said sending new ships without proper financing was exhausting the resources of Russia's rocket-builder Energiya, which owns Mir, and could finally lead to a situation where Mission Control would have to evacuate the crew.
"There is no big danger now. Physical laws will not allow Mir to fall before June 1999 as the worst-case scenario. It will probably hold there till December or even the start of 2000.
"But at some stage, we may face a situation when something may go wrong on Mir and there will be no one there to repair the malfunction. In this case, Mir would become uncontrollable and it could fall to Earth almost anywhere," Blagov said.
December 1999 is the internationally agreed deadline for Mir's life in orbit. By then, the first segments of a new international space station, Alpha, are due to become operational.
It should take another four or five supply runs to Mir to accomplish the program safely and on time.