Space debris almost hits airliner

A fiery object that nearly hit a Sydney-bound airliner over the Pacific may have been a meteorite or debris from a Russian satellite, New Zealand authorities say.

The Lan Chile A340 Airbus was flying between Santiago and Auckland, before heading to Australia, when it came within about 30 seconds of hitting the object about 10pm on Tuesday.

The pilots radioed air traffic controllers in New Zealand to report fiery objects falling in front and behind the plane.

Ken Mitchell from Airways New Zealand said the pilot reported the debris was falling “very close” to the plane.

“The pilot estimated the debris to be falling as close as five nautical miles (9.26 kilometres) to the aircraft,” Mitchell said.

“Certainly, a meteorite has not been ruled out and a formal investigation will determine that,” he said.

A plane spotter listening to a high-frequency radio broadcast told Fairfax media the pilot reported that a rumbling noise from the falling debris was louder than the plane.

The pilot also saw a piece of debris that lit up as it fell to earth.

Mitchell said the debris’ most likely origin was from a Russian satellite that had been decommissioned and fell to earth ahead of schedule.

He said the satellite was due to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere between 10.30am and noon on Wednesday.

“Around 10pm on Tuesday night we received notification from a Lan Chile flight enroute from Santiago to Auckland that he was experiencing what appeared to be falling space debris,” Mitchell said.

According to the Lan website, the A340 Airbus typically cruises at 976km/h, meaning the debris would have fallen just 34 seconds away from the aircraft.

The aircraft holds a maximum of 271 passengers.

Bill Sommer from New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority said there would be an investigation into the incident.

He said he was aware of reports that NASA had thought the falling satellite was not responsible and that a meteorite was most likely to blame for the incident.

An Aerolineas Argentinas aircraft flying enroute from Auckland to Argentina was notified of the debris, but elected to continue with the flight, Mitchell said.

“We have compiled a formal incident report and we will be filing that with our Aviation Safety Authority here in New Zealand in the next day or two,” he said.

A person from Lan Chile who answered a call to the company’s Auckland office today said information about the incident was confidential.