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Tuna Fleet Refuses To Leave MIR Splashdowne Zone

A fleet of tuna fishing boats is refusing to leave an area of the Pacific Ocean where the Russian Mir space station is set to crash on Friday. Mir will come down in a fireball

Maritime safety officials have repeatedly warned the vessels to leave, but admit they have no power to force them. The American fishermen say it has been a poor season for them and the fleet is taking a risk by staying because the tuna are biting. Russian space officials are now making final preparations to bring Mir back to Earth following its 15-year mission. Much of the 135-tonne space station will burn up as it comes down in a giant fireball. But around 1,500 pieces of debris, weighing 20-40 tonnes in total, will hurtle to Earth at near-sonic speeds. The debris is expected to come down over a wide area of the South Pacific somewhere between New Zealand and Chile. Warning New Zealand maritime authorities say the 30 or so fishermen still in the danger area have received repeated warnings and are fully aware of the situation. The fishermen don't want to give up good catches

An official in Prime Minister Helen Clark's office, said the boats appeared to be concentrated "right on the point where the Russians are aiming". Mir, by far the largest man-made object ever brought back to Earth, is scheduled to plunge back to earth shortly before 0600 GMT on Friday. Engineers are powering up the station's computer-controlled orientation system to stabilise its path before it begins its dramatic descent. They have also aligned Mir's solar panels to the sun in order to recharge its batteries. The station is currently orbiting the earth at 217km, having lost 3.4km of altitude during the last 24 hours. Insurance Cosmonauts are in the South Pacific to witness history

Officials say the debris will fall away from shipping lanes and inhabited areas. However, Moscow has taken out a $200m insurance policy in case its plans go awry. South Pacific islands are on alert and Australia and New Zealand have drawn up contingency plans. Airlines will also be warned of Mir's position in case flight paths need to be altered. Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear said all flights between Chile and Tahiti were suspended for Thursday and Friday. But 50 US and Russian space buffs and scientists are planning to take to the skies to witness Mir's descent.

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