Fireball fears stoked by space history

The sensational tale of the falling Russian satellite and the Chilean airliner lasted only a few hours before it was debunked — but the erroneous connection of the roaring fireball with a Russian space shot was entirely reasonable, given Chile’s long and unusual history of being on the receiving end of Russian space spectaculars.

The reports from New Zealand described fireballs that passed within 6 miles (9 kilometers) of a Lan Chile Airbus 340 jet en route from Santiago to Auckland. The crew even claimed they could hear the roar of the passing objects.

Only a few days before, Russia had issued a "Notice to Airmen" (or NOTAM) for that region of the far southern mid-Pacific, alerting pilots to avoid a specified zone during a short period on two succeeding days. A Progress supply ship was being dumped from the international space station and would be plunging to its destruction in that particular region of the atmosphere — a procedure that Russia had safely followed a hundred times before.

Even though the fireball was seen 12 hours prior to the specific interval the Russians had warned against, aviation officials at both ends of the trans-Pacific route jumped to the conclusion that the Russian satellite had simply crashed prematurely. That misinterpretation was soon cleared up, thanks to a more careful assessment of the actual schedule of the space maneuver.

But the initial reaction was far from random, or even obviously wrongheaded. Chile, due to a peculiar accident of global geography, has been on the receiving end of spectacular Russian space activities for decades — and Russia to this day has made no acknowledgement of its impact on the South American country.

Since the early 1970s, Chileans have been reporting one particular type of unidentified flying object that seems more sensational and astonishing than ordinary flying-saucer stories. Again and again, a moon-sized luminous ring is seen to rise into the sky out of the west, soon after sunset, and move in stately silence northward.

Witnesses from one end of the long country to the other — and people in Argentina and Uruguay as well — have told journalists of the object’s passage, of its effects on automobiles and on airport radars, and in one case, of a witness’ sexual dalliance with a crew member who beamed down for a quickie.

What was really happening was genuinely unearthly, but hardly alien. The people responsible for the phenomenon — Earthlings, to be sure — would be happy to shift the blame to extraterrestrials.

Satellites for communications and tracking
In Russia, a special type of satellite was routinely launched into a 12-hour elongated orbit that dwelled over the northern hemisphere for communications and missile tracking purposes. Strings of such payloads were deployed in several distinct orbital planes, and they required regular replacement as they wore out.

The launch sequence was always the same: Blast off from the Plesetsk spaceport north of Moscow, and coast in a low parking orbit halfway around the earth. Then fire the last stage to push the payload to a high point over the northern hemisphere. For safety's sake, the remaining rocket fuel is dumped out so it won't explode later and create a dangerous debris cloud.

A globe can show where this fuel dump occurs: off Chile's Pacific coast. The Russian launches occurred at various times throughout the day — but if they took place at a certain time of day, the cloud of debris would be backlit by the already-set sun, and it would appear as a glowing ring moving from left to right out over the ocean. It would be a UFO — or, in Spanish, an "OVNI."

To this day, these kinds of apparitions remain officially unexplained in Chile, although the news media has caught on that somehow the Russians are involved. Something strange in the sky? Blame the Russians — it’s a good "first guess."

But for something dangerous in the sky? Here again, Chile has learned to distrust the Russians.

On Nov. 16, 1996, Russia launched a science probe towards Mars — and the mission quickly ran into fatal problems. Stuck in a low parking orbit by a rocket failure, it became a brief international threat due to hazards from small plutonium batteries that were about to fall back to Earth.

Then the probe burned up over the southeastern Pacific Ocean — not far, coincidentally, from where the Chilean airliner encountered the fireball this week.

Within days, it became clear that the "safe at the bottom of the ocean" story was a mistake, first only an innocent misunderstanding by space officials in Moscow and Washington, but soon a deliberate deception from political leaders. The probe and its radioactive substances had not hit the Pacific Ocean — it had been seen as a fireball crossing the northern Chilean coastline and falling to Earth in the Atacama Desert near the Bolivian border.

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And there it remains to this day, hopefully undiscovered by local inhabitants. The small power units, warm to the touch and thus highly desirable for sleeping with (or placing in a child’s crib), would by now be emitting radiation of a type sufficiently lethal to kill anyone exposed over a long period of time.

Even though U.S. space officials later admitted (in a press release put out late Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving) that the probe "likely" was in Chile, neither Moscow nor Washington ever offered help in finding it and recovering it — or even in providing information to alert residents of the area. Officially, it was still "safe at the bottom of the Pacific."

Whatever the fate of the Mars-96 probe, or the recurrence of "glowing sphere" UFOs in the skies over Chile, that country’s instinctive connection of bizarre space sights with Russian space business is based on solid experience. The Russians were judged innocent this time, but there’s always going to be a next time.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on UFOs as well as the Soviet space effort, including "UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries" and "Uncovering Soviet Disasters."