LOS ANGELES – A small group of space enthusiasts plans to charter an aircraft to witness up close the event of a lifetime – the fiery death next month of the Russian Mir space station as it hurtles into the South Pacific.
The expedition, thought to be the only one of its kind in the world, will take some 120 researchers and paying members of the public 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) up into the skies south of Tahiti.
There they hope to view a display of pyrotechnics expected to be one of the most memorable celestial events of the 21st century.
“I have been planning to do this for 15 years. I missed the Skylab reentry in 1979 because it was an uncontrolled reentry,” expedition organizer Bob Citron told Reuters on Thursday.
“As far as I know we are the only ones doing it. When I started doing my research, I was amazed that no one else was planning to observe this reentry, which is going to be the most spectacular event since the Tunguska meteorite struck the earth in 1908,” Citron, a space industry businessman, said in a telephone interview from his Seattle home.
Russian space officials are to bring the 130-ton Mir space lab – the 15-year-old former crown jewel of the Soviet space program – crashing through the Earth’s atmosphere in the first half of March.
Two thirds of the aging and accident prone station will burn up in the controlled descent but the remainder is expected to plunge into a remote area of the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 nautical miles south of Tahiti and 2,400 nautical miles east of New Zealand.
Citron, founder of the commercial space firm Spacehab and a man with 30 years experience in the United States space program, believes the chances of seeing anything from land will be remote.
“The only place you will be able to see anything at all from Earth, if you are lucky, will be from one of the central South Pacific islands and the chances of that are very, very small. You really have to be over open ocean,” he said.
Citron is organizing the trip with his Los Angeles lawyer brother Rick Citron. The pair have a 30-year background in managing scientific trips to view solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions all over the world.
About 20 friends, colleagues and serious amateur astronomers have expressed interest in paying about $6,000 each for the trip. The plane will also take nonpaying scientific researchers and a television crew who will film the event as part of a documentary on the Mir.
The Citrons plan to unveil a website next week with details of the expedition.
A chartered wide-bodied jet will take the group above the clouds to a position some 200 miles away from the projected track of the debris.
“We are going to be at the best location to observe the event and we are going to be hundreds of miles from the debris impact area. There won’t be any danger of anything hitting us,” said Citron.
Although the show from horizon to horizon is likely to last only five or six minutes, the Citrons believe it will be a sight well worth seeing.
“Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incandescent pieces of Mir will rain down through the atmosphere, including the three huge sets of solar panels, the five major pressurized modules, and many tons of structure, external tubing and cabling, scientific equipment, rocket engines and fuel tanks,” said Rick Citron in a statement.
“Unless an asteroid strikes the earth sooner, there will not be another opportunity to witness and record an event of this magnitude until the International Space Station is de-orbited in 2020 or 2030.
“We’ve got the technology to observe and record the event. Why not do it?” he said.