Satellite screw-up: The story behind the 'meteor' that lit up New Zealand skies

The Russians messed up their destruction of a missile-detecting satellite that lit up the skies above New Zealand at the weekend, a Kiwi space expert says.

Initially reported as a meteor, Kosmos 2430 burned up as it came back down to Earth on Saturday night. The stunning sight was captured on video not just by amateurs armed with mobile phones, but a Sky Sports team covering an international cricket match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at Tauranga's Bay Oval.

 "I only wish I'd seen it, unlike the thousands of people who had - including my sister," space commentator Matthew Pavletich told RadioLIVE on Monday.

When he saw the footage, Mr Pavletich knew right away it wasn't a meteor.

"I said guys, it's not a meteor, it's not an alien UFO or spaceship - it is in fact a satellite."

He did some poking around online and came to the conclusion it was Kosmos 2430, a satellite launched in 2007 as part of Russia's Oko programme. Oko - which means 'eye' in Russian - began in the 1970s as the US and Russia were locked in the Cold War, and was designed to give the communists a heads-up if the US launched a nuclear attack.

While some of the satellites were put in geostationary orbits - meaning they stay above the same spot on Earth - Kosmos 2430 flew in a highly elliptical Molniya orbit. It would fly thousands of kilometres into space whilst above the northern hemisphere, giving it plenty of time to look down on the US, then swing in really close over the southern hemisphere, not wasting any time on us down under. The entire orbit takes about 12 hours.

A Molyina orbit.
A Molyina orbit. Photo credit: NASA

Satellites in a geostationary orbit can't view regions at high latitude, so would be unable to see missiles launched over the Arctic Circle.

"It could be over the same spot every 24 hours," said Mr Pavletich. "They had an array of these covering the hemispheres of the planet, so they could all overlap… very carefully controlled from the ground."

When satellites reach the end of their useful life, they're often destroyed by bringing them down towards the atmosphere, where they burn up. Most are pointed at the 'Great Spacecraft Graveyard' in a remote part of the Pacific, but it doesn't always go to plan.

"Unless they're designed to survive re-entry, they will not, because they're hitting the atmosphere at something like 4km a second," says Mr Pavletich.

"This collection of cameras, telescopes, solar panels, fuel tanks and rocket motors would have had a few dozen kilograms of rocket fuel left - that is what people were seeing breaking up and catching fire, as it touched oxygen with enormous friction.

"I imagine they slightly miscalculated a little, if it was extremely visible in the skies over the North Island of New Zealand - in other words, it fell slightly short of its intended doom."

Mr Pavletich says it's unlikely Kiwis will find any remains of the satellite in their backyards.

"Unless they are equipped with a powerful heat shield they are not going to survive entry, and it's only the size of the thing that dictates how much of it will survive and land on the ground."

But don't be too worried about the sky falling in. Mr Pavletich says in more than 60 years of the space age, there has been only one documented case of a person being injured by a falling piece of space junk.

That was Lottie Williams, an Oklahoma woman who was hit by a small piece of falling junk in 1997 and lived to tell the tale.

In 2017 the first death attributed to space junk was recorded in Kazakhstan. Debris from a rocket launch started a fire, and one firefighter died in the attempt to put it out.