20 Jul 2016

Object lights up South Island skies

9:34 am on 20 July 2016

An object which flashed across the sky on Tuesday evening was likely to be part of a rocket, not a meteor, an astronomer says.

South Canterbury resident Ralph Pfister shot this video of the object crossing the sky:

The object was seen in the lower South Island with most people thinking it was a meteor.

Jim O'Gorman from Kakanui, Otago, was standing in his garden looking over the ocean when he saw a bright red light come from the south around 6.30pm.

Mr O'Gorman described it as a large orange ball and initially thought it was Mars.

"It had a twin tail and I thought hello, this looks interesting.

"It got brighter and brighter and brighter and the tails got brighter and it looked, how would you say, like a sky rocket - a plane, skyrocket in the sky - quite red.

"And as it went over the Pacific to the nor-east it was omitting sparks of white light and I thought well, that looks more like space junk than it does a meteor or meteorite to me."

Another witness, Richard Miller, said the flash of light looked like a light on a plane and came up from the south.

It then shot across the sky at high speed before exploding into parts over north Dunedin.

Another video of the meteor, from Callum Law in Dunedin:

But former superintendent of Mount John Observatory in Lake Tekapo, Alan Gilmore, said the object was moving too slow to be considered a meteor or meteorite.

Meteors were usually only visible for a second in the sky but the object on Tuesday night lit up for more than half a minute.

"The typical shooting star that you see, the falling star which takes a second or so to disappear is a chip of rock from an asteroid belt or a fluff ball of dust from a comet.

"But because this took so long to cross the sky - it was moving much more slowly than those objects - it was almost certainly something that had been launched into orbit around the earth."

Museum of Otago astronomer Ian Griffin told Morning Report the object was probably the third stage of a rocket that launched to the International Space Station early this week.

"It was a massive thing - it's about six metres long and two metres wide, and weighs about 2000 kilograms."

To share pictures or video of the object with us, please email to: iwitness@radionz.co.nz