Bright lights above NZ could have been a rocket and meteor

Rockets which launch spacecraft for the International Space Station tend to fall into the ocean east of New Zealand.
ISS/NASA

Rockets which launch spacecraft for the International Space Station tend to fall into the ocean east of New Zealand.

Bright lights seen in the sky throughout much of the country overnight on Friday may have been several different events, including part of a Russian spacecraft burning up.

Dozens of people from Auckland to Invercargill have reported seeing the lights, and some also heard a boom or a bang. Many of the sightings were around 10.20pm, but there were others from as early as 8.30pm to around midnight.

Did you see the meteor? Email newstips@stuff.co.nz

Probably the most common description of the events was that they were bright. Colours seen included green, blue, orange, white, red/green/white, green/red, and blue/yellow.

Stardome astronomer Dr Grant Christie said the multiple colours supported suggestions people may have seen the casing from a Russian rocket entering the atmosphere.

The projected decay orbits for the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket after a cargo and refuelling mission at the ...

The projected decay orbits for the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket after a cargo and refuelling mission at the International Space Station.

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A Soyuz rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan on Wednesday carrying a spacecraft taking food and equipment to the International Space Station.

The Progress spacecraft docked with the ISS on Friday morning, and the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket was due to complete its "decay phase" on Friday night. The rocket burning up may have also been visible in Victoria and Tasmania in Australia.

"The clue is that the reports ... were that there were a lot of coloured parts. That usually signifies the break up of a rocket, which is made up of lots of different kinds of materials," Christie said.

Rocket re-entries were not unusual.

"Most people who are launching to service the space station, or other things ... the rocket itself doesn't go into orbit, it falls back. They adjust their trajectory so they basically fall into the ocean well to the east of New Zealand. That means they are burning up as they pass over us."

Several previous re-entry events had been reported, particularly from the South Island, Christie said. Parts of a rocket burning up could be visible for a minute or two, at a rough estimate.

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Given the spread of time in some of the reports, it was possible more than one part of the rocket had entered the atmosphere.

Meteors were usually going much faster than rocket parts and might only be visible for a few seconds. A large meteor could produce a boom.

Dr Claire Bretherton, science curator at Museums Wellington, said people who reported seeing something that was orange and red may have seen a meteor, while the reports of different colours could indicate other people saw some sort of space debris.

It was always extremely difficult to be more precise about something she hadn't seen herself, or when she hadn't had a chance to talk to people who did see it.

The varying times reported indicated people had seen different events, "different meteors or different parts of space debris burning up", Bretherton said.

Palmerston North Astronomical Society publicity officer Noel Munford said a bright greenish object described in some reports was likely a very bright meteor, or possibly even a fireball (an even brighter meteor).

"While not personally seeing the object, the likelihood of it being a bright meteor to fireball is almost 95 per cent. I say this for many reasons.  One, the colour given in many of the reports is very typical of a fireball as it smashes through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds. The duration of visibility being just a couple of seconds is also very typical," Munford said. 

A police spokesman said they had "a few calls" about the object.

WITNESS ACCOUNTS

"Whilst staying in Nelson with my daughter at approximately 10.20pm, we saw a hub-shaped bright light shooting past and over our roof and out towards sea at Atawhai. It was over in seconds," one eye-witness said.

Sam Hill said: "I saw 2 bright lights in the sky around 9.40pm tonight that were definitely not planes. One was very bright and travelling in a south-easterly direction and another heading north. In the Pohangina Valley, Manawatu."

Bern Healy said: "Saw the meteor on route between lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea at about 10 18pm Friday night. Very bright red green and white streak heading east to west in the low northern sky."

From Josh Coote in Stoke, near Nelson: "We noticed a shooting star that got brighter and brighter. Within a second the meteor turned bright blue and lit up the entire sky for about two seconds before burning out towards the western ranges. We did not hear the loud bang that other people heard. We noticed a trail that lasted a few seconds after the meteor was no longer visible."

Kevin McMullan said: "I was driving South around Marton and saw a bright green object, like a flare, except green not red, dropping out of the sky in the west. As I saw it over a house, I couldn't tell whether it was a real big firework, or something else. Looked pretty cool. I didn't hear anything, however I was doing 100km in an old ute, would have had to be pretty loud for me to hear it."

Libby Coleman said: "Sitting outside in Hanmer springs, I saw what I initially thought was a bright shooting star. It got brighter as it traveled and then appeared to explode, lighting up the entire sky.  AMAZING SIGHT."

Marcia Elliot said: "We are in Wreys Bush/Wairio in western Southland. My kids and I witnessed what I am sure looked like a fireball at approx 11.34pm. It travelled across the sky from east to west and had a distinct tail. Visible for about five to six seconds. We also witnessed numerous shooting stars and a smaller orange meteor shortly before the big one at 11.34pm."

 - Stuff

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