A Chilean jetliner flying to New Zealand came "uncomfortably close" to being hit by blazing objects hurtling through the atmosphere, New Zealand aviation officials said Thursday.
New Zealand officials initially said that the Lan Chile plane, flying from Santiago, Chile, may have narrowly missed being blasted by Russian space debris returning to Earth ahead of schedule. But Russian officials denied that, and other experts said it was most likely a close encounter with a disintegrating meteor.
Later Thursday, after the Russian denials were reported, New Zealand officials appeared to back away from the space junk idea, saying it was up to an investigation to determine the source of the flaming objects spotted by the pilot.
While it is not uncommon for debris to fall into the South Pacific, "it is very uncommon to have a plane in the middle of it," Airways New Zealand spokesman Ken Mitchell said.
Mitchell, whose agency handles air traffic control in the region, initially told New Zealand's National Radio the flaming objects may have been space junk arriving 12 hours ahead of Russian projections. But he later said that a meteor could not be ruled out.
"An official investigation will determine exactly what the case is," he said
"The object was reported to be uncomfortably close by the pilot of the aircraft and we've taken the matter very seriously," Mitchell said. "The pilot estimated the debris to be falling as close as 5 nautical miles (5.8 statute miles or 9.2 kilometers) to the aircraft."
Link to Russians debated
The reference to the Russians may have been linked to Tuesday's atmospheric re-entry of an unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship, jettisoned by the international space station in preparation for the arrival of a new crew next month. But Russia's Federal Space Agency issued a statement saying that the Progress craft had fallen back to Earth according to the timetable it had advised aviation officials about previously.
It said fragments of Progress did not plunge into the South Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand until around 2330 GMT (7:30 p.m. ET) Tuesday — about 12 hours after the fiery near-hit with the jet was reported. "Unless someone has their times wrong, there appears to be no correlation," Nicholas Johnson, orbital debris chief scientist for NASA's Johnson Space Center, told The Associated Press.
Johnson said there are no other reports from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network of other re-entering space junk at the time, so the flaming objects must have been fragments of a meteor.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg agreed with Johnson's assessment, saying that a natural meteor fireball most likely blazed through the sky — and the timing of the Progress deorbiting was merely a coincidence.
Oberg also said it can be difficult to judge distance when it comes to aerial fireballs.
"Pilots have been known to throw their aircraft into violent evasive maneuvers based on seeing bright fireballs that were 100 to 150 kilometers away," he noted. "This is good for safety's sake — always interpret a sudden visual stimulus in the most hazardous way — but it's bad for 'dispassionate observations.'"
If the objects were as near as 5 nautical miles in front of and behind the Airbus 340 — which is what the pilot told air traffic controllers at Auckland — experts said that would be uncomfortably close. "You're talking about 20 seconds, and that's not a lot" of separation, World Airliner magazine editor Tony Dickson told National Radio Thursday.
Meteoroids vs. space debris
Bill Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, Calif., said about 50 meteoroids enter the Earth's atmosphere every day. Those that survive to hit the earth are called meteorites.
By contrast, about 150 pieces of satellite space junk fall back to Earth each year. About two-thirds of these are unplanned but still known and monitored.
"For deorbit, everything has to be lined up right ... and your math has to be right and also your time has to be precise," Ailor said. "There are lots of places where you can have problems."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com.