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Russia preparing for end of "Mir'

In a first step toward bidding farewell to their battered space outpost, Russian space officials said Tuesday they would begin gradually lowering Mir's orbit next month to prepare to discard it in 1999.

Mir could stay in orbit longer, however, if the new international space station continues to face delays, Yuri Semyonov, head of the state-run RKK Energia, told the ITAR-Tass news agency. His company built Mir and has been running it since it was put into orbit in 1986.

At Russia's Mission Control just outside Moscow, spokesman Valery Lyndin refused to comment on the report Tuesday.

Russian officials have said Mir likely would be abandoned sometime next year, when the international station is operational.

A cargo ship scheduled to dock with Mir on May 17 will use its engines to begin dragging the 120-ton station's orbit closer to Earth, Semyonov said.

"Every future spacecraft docking with Mir will bring the station down," Semyonov said.

The Mir orbits 250 miles above the Earth and gradually will be lowered to about 90 miles by December 1999, when it will be discarded and allowed to burn in the atmosphere, he said.

The 12-year-old Mir was plagued by breakdowns last year, including a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship. The crew fixed most of the problems and it has been running relatively trouble-free this year.

The timetable for abandoning the Mir could change if the new international space station is late in entering orbit.

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