Fiery display from Russian satellite burning up

NOT ONE OF OURS: A bright fireball seen over the top half of the North Island was witnessed by several Gisborne people on Saturday night. This picture is taken from a video shot at Wainui Beach. Video taken by Lucy Laurenson

Was it a meteorite? Was it a UFO?

Several Gisborne people reported sighting a bright object streaking at high speed through the night sky on Saturday. Some witnesses described a bright light followed by a loud, rumbling noise.

“We just saw a crazy thing flying over us on the beach at Okitu,” said Wainui resident Willie Baty in a Facebook post. The account was accompanied by clear footage of the mercurial object as it appears to arc skyward before it begins to descend. At the head is an incandescent fireball while three to five smaller bright balls follow in its long tail.

“It was supersonic, crazy speed, full arc from over hills to over the sea . . . bright and then shooting flashes burning then breaking apart . . . at the end there was light, a regular flashing light, as it appeared to drop into the ocean.

“It was huge and so fast . . . mind blowing!”

What the Facebook correspondent, and many others, saw was the Russian Kosmos 2430 Missile Early Warning Satellite re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and burning over New Zealand’s North Island at about 9pm.

The Russian satellite was launched in 2007 as part of the Russian Space Forces’ Oko programme. It was designed to identify missile launches using optical telescopes and infrared sensors.

With brief but deep dives (well below 100km) into the upper atmosphere, it is possible the satellite developed a plasma tail one or two perigee (the point in the orbit of a satellite at which it is nearest to the Earth) passes before actual re-entry, says Netherlands satellite tracking station SatTrackCam Leiden.

“The copious fragmentation visible in footage from New Zealand shows that this event was the actual moment of atmospheric re-entry and complete disintegration.”

Theoretical cosmologist Professor Richard Easther, the head of physics at the University of Auckland, told The New Zealand Herald the Russians appeared to have lost control of it.

The satellite was among several sent up to Earth orbit by Russia to protect against missile attacks, primarily by the United States, he said.

“The US has a similar constellation of satellites.”

Although surviving remains of the nearly two tonne satellite landed in the sea, it was conceivable debris such as large chunks of glass or scorched metal had landed in someone’s backyard.

“In the remote (case) . . . that you discover some ‘space junk’, some spacecraft have small manoeuvring engines that use toxic propellants, so anything that looks like a gas bottle or tank should be treated with caution.

“But pieces of metal are almost certainly safe, apart from the sharp edges.”

If the satellite’s descent had been controlled it would have been manoeuvred to splash into the Southern Ocean. The fact its re-entry occurred over New Zealand implied that “the Russians lost control of it”.

In the event of any damage, “you could send Vladimir Putin the bill”, joked Professor Easther.

Was it a meteorite? Was it a UFO?

Several Gisborne people reported sighting a bright object streaking at high speed through the night sky on Saturday. Some witnesses described a bright light followed by a loud, rumbling noise.

“We just saw a crazy thing flying over us on the beach at Okitu,” said Wainui resident Willie Baty in a Facebook post. The account was accompanied by clear footage of the mercurial object as it appears to arc skyward before it begins to descend. At the head is an incandescent fireball while three to five smaller bright balls follow in its long tail.

“It was supersonic, crazy speed, full arc from over hills to over the sea . . . bright and then shooting flashes burning then breaking apart . . . at the end there was light, a regular flashing light, as it appeared to drop into the ocean.

“It was huge and so fast . . . mind blowing!”

What the Facebook correspondent, and many others, saw was the Russian Kosmos 2430 Missile Early Warning Satellite re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and burning over New Zealand’s North Island at about 9pm.

The Russian satellite was launched in 2007 as part of the Russian Space Forces’ Oko programme. It was designed to identify missile launches using optical telescopes and infrared sensors.

With brief but deep dives (well below 100km) into the upper atmosphere, it is possible the satellite developed a plasma tail one or two perigee (the point in the orbit of a satellite at which it is nearest to the Earth) passes before actual re-entry, says Netherlands satellite tracking station SatTrackCam Leiden.

“The copious fragmentation visible in footage from New Zealand shows that this event was the actual moment of atmospheric re-entry and complete disintegration.”

Theoretical cosmologist Professor Richard Easther, the head of physics at the University of Auckland, told The New Zealand Herald the Russians appeared to have lost control of it.

The satellite was among several sent up to Earth orbit by Russia to protect against missile attacks, primarily by the United States, he said.

“The US has a similar constellation of satellites.”

Although surviving remains of the nearly two tonne satellite landed in the sea, it was conceivable debris such as large chunks of glass or scorched metal had landed in someone’s backyard.

“In the remote (case) . . . that you discover some ‘space junk’, some spacecraft have small manoeuvring engines that use toxic propellants, so anything that looks like a gas bottle or tank should be treated with caution.

“But pieces of metal are almost certainly safe, apart from the sharp edges.”

If the satellite’s descent had been controlled it would have been manoeuvred to splash into the Southern Ocean. The fact its re-entry occurred over New Zealand implied that “the Russians lost control of it”.

In the event of any damage, “you could send Vladimir Putin the bill”, joked Professor Easther.

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