Fri, Mar 30, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Fallen debris may be meteorite

FROM THE SKY Flaming fragments which fell near a Chilean airliner were thought to have been the remains of a satellite, but New Zealand authorities said otherwise


Flaming debris which fell from the sky near a Chilean airliner over the Pacific Ocean may have been a meteorite, New Zealand authorities said yesterday.

Reports on Wednesday said the objects, believed to have been the remains of a Russian satellite, were estimated to have passed as close as 8km from a LAN Airlines Airbus A340 aircraft.

But a spokesman for Airways New Zealand, which manages New Zealand's air traffic, said yesterday it was unclear where the debris had come from.

"Whether that debris was a meteorite or falling space debris is yet to be determined," Airways New Zealand spokesman Ken Mitchell told Radio New Zealand.

"It will require an in-depth investigation and liaison with international authorities to get to the bottom of this," he said.

While it is not uncommon for space junk to fall into the South Pacific, "it is very uncommon to have a plane in the middle of it," Mitchell said, whose agency handles air traffic control in the region, told New Zealand National Radio that the flaming objects were likely space junk arriving 12 hours ahead of Russian projections.

The Chilean airline said in a brief communique that the pilot, who was not identified, "made visual contact with incandescent fragments several kilometers away" during the Monday night flight, and that the incident was reported to authorities in Chile and New Zealand.

But Russia's Federal Space Agency issued a statement saying that its cargo ship Progress M-58 had fallen back to Earth according to the timetable it had warned aviation officials about previously.

In other words, the Russians say the fragments of Progress didn't plunge into the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand until about around 11:30pm local time on Tuesday. The fiery near-hit with the jet was reported about 12 hours earlier, a time when the cargo ship was still attached to the international space station.

"Unless someone has their times wrong, there appears to be no correlation," said Nicholas Johnson, orbital debris chief scientist for NASA's Johnson Space Center, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Johnson said there are no other reports from the US Space Surveillance Network of other re-entering space junk at the time, so the flaming objects must have been fragments of a meteor.

The Lan Chile pilot flying from Santiago, Chile, notified air traffic controllers at Auckland after spotting the flaming objects just five nautical miles 9.2km in front of and behind his Airbus 340.

That distance would not have given the pilots much room for maneuver, according to World Airliner magazine editor Tony Dickson.

"You're talking about 20 seconds and that's not a lot" of separation, he told National Radio yesterday.

About 50 meteoroids enter the Earth's atmosphere every day, most of which burning up as they speed in, said Bill Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California.

Those that survive to hit the earth are called meteorites.

By contrast, about 150 pieces of man-made space junk fall back to Earth each year. About two-thirds of these are unplanned but still known and monitored, and larger man-made space equipment, such as the Progress resupply ship, have motors to guide them back to Earth, Ailor said.

If they are calculated to have more than a 1 in 10,000 chance of hitting people, they are shifted to a safer path, he said, though small errors can lead to large variations in where the debris hits.

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