The world's press was quick to spread the news that pieces of space junk from a falling Russian satellite narrowly missed hitting a LAN Chile jetliner over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday night. But several experts are now questioning the likelihood of the claims.
According to media reports, the LAN Airbus A340 was traveling between Santiago and Auckland, New Zealand. The pilot notified air traffic controllers at the Auckland Flight Center after seeing flaming, incandescent fragments of the satellite flying through the sky eight kilometers in front of the aircraft. He described seeing pieces of debris lighting up as they re-entered the earth's atmosphere.
According to a plane spotter, who was tuning into a high frequency radio broadcast at the time, the pilot "reported that the rumbling noise from the space debris could be heard over the noise of the aircraft." The plane spotter also heard air traffic control in Auckland warning the pilot of an Aerolineas Argentinas flight, traveling in the opposite direction ten degrees further south. The pilot chose to carry on rather than turn back to New Zealand.
The assistant secretary of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Captain Steven Anderson, who flies for Qantas, said that based on the details of the report, the debris could have caused catastrophic consequences had it actually struck the aircraft. He said that "for the pilot to have heard the debris falling, it was probably a lot closer than he thinks or it was bigger and going at quite a high speed." Anderson thinks the debris may well have broken the sound barrier.
A spokesman for the Aeronautical Association of New Zealand, which provides air navigation services across airspace known as the Auckland Flight Information Region, confirmed the incident Wednesday morning. He said it occurred about ten minutes after the LAN Chile flight had entered the region.
The Aeronautical Association of New Zealand were warned by Russian authorities almost two weeks ago that a satellite would be entering the earth's atmosphere sometime last night and the information was passed on to the airlines and pilots due to travel in the region at that time. However, according to a spokesman for the Aeronautical Association of New, Ken Mitchell, the satellite fragments entered the atmosphere at least 12 hours before the time given by Russian authorities.
Luckily the Chilean aircraft landed safely in Auckland at dawn this morning without problems. A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible for air safety, said it would launch an inquiry after it was advised of the details of the incident.
The story made big news around the world and was picked up by FOX News, MSNBC, and the BBC, although aerospace media consultant James Oberg told the Santiago Times that the story was probably all hype.
"All available documentation shows that the de-orbit [of the Russian satellite] happened exactly on time, and if it wasn't, it would have burned up over an entirely different part of the globe," he said.
Oberg continued to say that pilots sometimes overreact out of caution. "Range experts of bright fireballs are notoriously inaccurate, and pilots have been known to throw their aircraft into violent evasive maneuvers based on seeing bright fireballs that were 100 to 150 kilometers away.
Finally, Oberg doubted that crashing sounds were actually heard, and said more information should be obtained from the passengers on the plane.