Watch: 'Balls of fire' light up sky

By Gia Garrick, Vaimoana Tapaleao

What was thought to be a spectacular meteor seen over parts of the country last night is most likely debris from cargo sent up to the International Space Station, an expert says.

People from all around the South Island reported seeing a bright ball of fire, with a tail, flying across the skies at about 6.30pm.

Many witnesses labelled the object a meteor and said it later exploded into thousands of pieces - what one man called "a beautiful sight."

But earth and sky astronomy guide Kristian Wilson, of the Mt John University Observatory, said the object was possibly debris from a cargo trip sent up to the International Space Station at some point.

"It's basically supplies for the space stations," Wilson told Fairfax.

"We now believe it's not a meteor."

Just yesterday, NASA launched a cargo craft on a Falcon 9 rocket, from a station in Florida.

A press release said the cargo would support dozens of the more than 250 science and research investigations during the station's Expeditions 48 and 49.

Former resident superintendent of Canterbury University's Mt John Observatory, astronomer Alan Gilmore, said the fireball was rarer than a meteor.

What was originally thought to be a meteor is most likely a manmade object coming back into the earth's atmosphere. Photo / vic.flash@xtra
What was originally thought to be a meteor is most likely a manmade object coming back into the earth's atmosphere. Photo / vic.flash@xtra

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"It's not a meteor, I'm certain of that. It took too long to go across the sky."

Mr Gilmore said the flash had all the characteristics of a re-entry of debris from a space craft, or piece of equipment which had been orbiting earth.

Mr Gilmore said the only other such case in Southern skies he knew of happened about 10 years ago.

WeatherWatch head analyst Philip Duncan said after viewing video footage, he too no longer thought it was a meteor.

"It seemed quite slow-moving. Perhaps it could be a rocket or satellite re-entry,'' he said.

"Or it may just simply be the long low distance making it look slower and may well be a meteor. I'm a bit more unsure now.''

The fireball over Blenheim today. Photo / Nicola Evans
The fireball over Blenheim today. Photo / Nicola Evans

Waimate man Ralph Pfister was driving home from work when he spotted a peculiar object in the sky.

"It looked like a plane coming, but there were all these embers - like sparks - coming from the back of it.

"It kind of popped - like an explosion, but there was no noise - and then it exploded into smaller pieces.''

Another man, Paul Grey from Kaiteriteri, said he saw six or eight fire balls in the sky.
Grey had been looking towards Wellington at the time.

WeatherWatch said it had received dozens of reports from members of the public about a "spectacular meteor'' seen over the South Island.

A local man, named only as Steven, said: "I just saw a huge streak of light in the sky north of Dunedin. Something entered the atmosphere then created a big tail behind it. At one point, it got brighter and later broke into smaller pieces.

"I've never seen anything like that before.''

Another person from Palmerston described the object as an orange light in the sky with a tail.

"Lasted for almost a minute - headed towards the ground. I'm guessing meteor, my friend thought rocket. What was it?''

The WeatherWatch's Meteor: Eyewitness Reports page shows how far and wide the object was sighted.

There were sightings in Blenheim, Otago, Dunedin, Cromwell, Wanaka, Oamaru, Timaru, Mosgiel, Middlemarch, Ashburton, Mt Cook, Greymouth and east of the Cook Strait.

- NZ Herald

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