A cosmic shower of light over New Zealand skies on Saturday night has been described as "once-in-a-lifetime" experience by Bay of Plenty residents - and there's a chance a small part of it might be sitting in someone's backyard.

Skywatchers across the North Island reported a possible meteor or space junk sighting about 9pm. Sightings were reported around the country, from Whāngārei to Auckland, to Rotorua, the Hawke's Bay and Nelson.

In the Tauranga suburb of Bellevue, resident Haley Marie said the experience was "once in a lifetime".

"I walked out the front door and saw it enter the atmosphere, it was a bright flash then started shooting across the sky.

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"Obviously I thought it was a UFO!! I ran inside and grabbed my camera, shouting to everyone to go outside. I'm an avid sky watcher so it was just amazing."

In Bethlehem, Taine Blackler and his friends thought was a flare or something similar someone had shot nearby.

"It kinda looked like it was coming from the ground to begin with," he said.

"I've seen shooting stars before but nothing as spectacular as this. You could see parts of whatever it was burning off really clearly."

Rotorua's Luke Miekus was talking with backpackers when "we noticed the light, and it was fairly slow moving, and the meteor itself was sparking like a firework and it was showering sparks of colour as if it was reflecting the sun".

"We watched it pass right over the top of us and watched it break into two, what looked like over the Redwoods.

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"It was the most beautiful thing I've seen in the sky. The tail it left lingered for up to half an hour."

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Ginny Buchanan said she and her daughter Harper, 7, had just got home in Ngongotahā, got out of the car when they saw a flash in the sky with a trail of smoke behind it.

"I thought it was a plane at first then realised it wasn't. That's when I knew it was a meteor. It was very cool.

"Harper thought it was going to crash and make a tidal wave."

Steph Joy Le Brocq was at Pukehina when she and her friends saw the bright light trail overhead.

She said the meteor made Saturday a "pretty special night".

"We all thought it was a shooting star or meteor but it was awesome because it was so clear and [we've never seen anything] like that before ..."

Denise La Grouw in Hannah's Bay said she thought it might have been a meteor, "one large ball with two smaller ones trailing it... I must say I also wondered if it was a UFO".

"It was in sight for quite a long time, nothing like a falling star."

Jeremy Te Huia was running stairs at Smallbone Park in Rotorua and saw a light shooting across the sky.

"I have never seen something like this before, it was like some type of fireworks that had a bright light at the front with a tail of stars.

Theoretical cosmologist Professor Richard Easther, the head of physics at the University of Auckland, said he was 99 per cent certain that it was the Russian Kosmos 2430 satellite - and that the Russians appear to have lost control of it.

He said it was among several satellites sent up to Earth orbit by Russia to protect against missile attacks, primarily by the United States.

Easther said it conceivable that some of the satellite, which had weighed nearly 2 tonnes, had survived the intense heat of its dive through the atmosphere and landed in someone's backyard.

The kinds of debris to look for would be large chunks of glass or scorched metal.

Easther said Kosmos 2430 was known to be passing over New Zealand at the time of the bright object last night. The proof that it was the cause would be in sky watchers reporting its absence.

If it had been a controlled descent, 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".