6 Jan 2019

Direct satellite hit may have seen Russians caught behind

6:23 pm on 6 January 2019

The commentators for the cricket match between the Black Caps and Sri Lanka were among those who thought the fireballs that zoomed through the night sky were a meteor shower.

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Photo: Twitter / @janwalzer

Ian Smith quipped that he hoped it didn't land too close.

But if it had come down on Mt Maunganui's Bay Oval, the Russian government may have had to foot the bill.

That's because the fireballs were probably the last blast of Russian Space Forces satellite Kosmos 2430, and in such cases the country of origin is liable for any damage.

Richard Easther

Richard Easther Photo: supplied

An Auckland University physics professor, Richard Easther, said the two-tonne satellite was over New Zealand at the time, and it had been due to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

"The timing and the trajectory is consistent with the satellite that we're watching up on. This one was impressive - it was relatively large, it was visible over land and at a time when quite a few people were looking up."

The soaring light was visible for several minutes around 9pm and had social media buzzing.

Kosmos 2430 was launched in 2007 as part of a Russian Space Forces programme. It was designed to identify missile launches targeting Russia.

"This particular satellite was in quite an elliptical orbit that had its perigee or lowest point over the southern hemisphere. So it spent most of its time over the northern hemisphere, which is where you'd expect any missiles to come from," Dr Easther said.

"So in this case it's far more likely it would re-enter in the southern hemisphere."

Dr Easther said that if anything had plummeted into someone's backyard, it would probably be no more than a few small chunks of the satellite.