Pilot describes space object flashing in front of cockpit

By Belinda McCammon

A commercial airline pilot believes space debris flashed across southern skies in front of his cockpit as he flew over North Canterbury yesterday.

The pilot -- who did not want his airline or name published -- said an object similar to a meteor -- "but different" -- flashed in front of his cockpit over Hanmer about 3pm yesterday.

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The pilot said he did not believe it was a meteor because it was spinning and had reminded him of the debris from the United States space shuttle Columbia when it had exploded.

The first officer also witnessed the object but the pilot doubted any passengers would have seen it because it passed directly in front of the plane.

"First time I have ever seen anything like that during the day," he said.

The object was gone within seconds and it was impossible to judge how far away from the plane it had been, or the length of the object.

"It just had a very bright light and a smoke trail."

The pilot told air traffic control what he saw.

He said they were over North Canterbury at the time, at about 20,000 feet, in descent.

He believed if the debris survived it would have landed in that region.

The pilot said he had also spoken to the National Radiation Laboratory in Christchurch, who had expressed concern to him about possible radiation from the object.

Scientists today determined that an object thought to be a fragment of a meteor -- handed to police last night by a property owner who found it in a paddock at Dunsandel, 40km south of Christchurch -- was not radioactive.

The object was analysed this morning by scientists .

Laboratory group manager Jim Turnbull said today there were initial concerns the 10cm long, 5cm wide rock-like object might have been nuclear fuel from a small generator in a satellite.

"We can discount that," he said.


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