After bright lights streaking across the twilight sky dazzled Kiwis - and others around the globe - last Saturday, astrophysicist Richard Easther switched on his computer and began watching the videos flooding on to social media.

To watch footage of the unexpected light show was to become immersed not only in what was going on above, but also the rainbow of emotions of those lucky witnesses, ranging from joy to trepidation to wonder and a whole lot of excitement.

There was Paremoremo dad-of-seven Inger Ivatt, on a fishing trip in the upper reaches of Auckland's Waitematā Harbour to cheer up a companion going through a tough time, who screamed with delight at the sight.

"I was like 'Woohoo'. That was just spontaneous happiness. I've never seen anything like that before and I love space. We're always up at the Stardome."

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Inger Ivatt, left, with his nephew Leif Ivatt, 15, and brother Tuliss Ivatt. The trio were fishing in Auckland when they saw the Russian satellite falling from the sky. Photo / Supplied
Inger Ivatt, left, with his nephew Leif Ivatt, 15, and brother Tuliss Ivatt. The trio were fishing in Auckland when they saw the Russian satellite falling from the sky. Photo / Supplied

And, almost 70km to the north, there was New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft, who followed the lights' journey across a pink-purple sky at Omaha Beach in silence because she didn't want her voice to "get in the way" of the moment.

Another witness made his feelings clear when he tagged his uploaded footage #joymeteor on Twitter; in some of the videos there were so many people talking excitedly at the same time, their exact words were lost.

In many videos Easther, a professor who is head of physics at the University of Auckland, could hear the skywatchers trying to figure out what they were seeing.

It was all beautiful, he said.

"They were going through the same process that a professional would: It can't be a plane, it's going too fast . . . that sort of thing. It was fun watching them grapple with what it was.

"It's kind of a combination of wonder and logic . . . what the heck is that? They were working through [the options]. That's the way an astrophysicist would do it. They did New Zealand proud — for a brief moment there was quite a few more of us [astrophysicists] than normal."

What the heck it was turned out to be Russia's Kosmos 2430 missile early warning satellite, launched in 2007 to detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

Russia's Aerospace Forces said Kosmos 2430, which had not been operational since 2012, was guided out of orbit as part of a planned operation last Saturday, The Guardian reported on Friday.

Astrophysicist Richard Easther was impressed by Kiwis responses to the then-mysterious lights in the sky. File photo / Chris Gorman
Astrophysicist Richard Easther was impressed by Kiwis responses to the then-mysterious lights in the sky. File photo / Chris Gorman

But Easther thought the Russian military may be "putting a brave face on the inevitable".

"So far as I can see, its trajectory appears to be consistent with an uncontrolled descent."

Russia had long lost interest in the satellite and its fate was "purely a matter of academic interest now" among the communities that monitor satellite movements — the military, owners of other satellites and the "nerd contingent", enthusiastic amateurs who track objects in the sky, Easther said before the Russian confirmation.

But it was clear by the reaction of last Saturday's incident that while most don't spend hours diligently tracking the space junk of foreign governments, the mysteries of the universe draw the eyes of many skyward.

University of Auckland scholar of religion, Professor Joseph Bulbulia. Photo / Supplied
University of Auckland scholar of religion, Professor Joseph Bulbulia. Photo / Supplied

Fellow University of Auckland professor, Joseph Bulbulia, who uses tools from the biological sciences to investigate spiritual habits and beliefs, said the starry night was an ancient and enduring object of human fascination and wonder.

"On the one hand, celestial movements are predictable. This regularity has enabled humans to create reliable calendars and to explore vast ocean expanses. We have learned to count on the stars to steer us right.

"On the other hand, the night sky is filled with astonishing events. From comets to meteor showers, to lunar eclipses, to borealis — rare and spectacular celestial phenomena provoke astonishment, awe, and even terror. The improvisational theatre of the night sky is a vivid reminder of human limitations."

The experience could be a force for good though, with mounting psychological research indicating that awe-inspiring events may be sources of collective bonding that then spur those involved to be more likely to volunteer to support a worthy cause, Bulbulia said.

"Celestial spectacles are not merely reminders of our limitation. They provide opportunities for all of us who live under the wonderful celestial sky to draw closer together."

New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft was among lucky Kiwis to see dazzling lights falling from the sky last Saturday. File photo / Supplied
New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft was among lucky Kiwis to see dazzling lights falling from the sky last Saturday. File photo / Supplied

For Marcroft, there was another, very 2019, positive to come from discovering so many others had seen the same entrancing sight she had.

There was a magic in the dusk sky anyway, and she was pleased so many were already enjoying it that night.

"I think we give too much time to looking at our phones. It was really good to realise some people were not looking down their noses at their devices when this happened."