Wednesday, March 28, 2007

LAN Chile A340 has near mid-air collision with Russian spacecraft?

LAN ChileTalk about being in the wrong place at just the wrong time!

A LAN Chile Airbus A340 aircraft en route from Santiago, Chile to Auckland, New Zealand had a near collision with debris, possibly from a Russian spacecraft, late in the evening on March 27, 2007. The fiery debris missed the aircraft by just a few miles and fell into the ocean. The plane landed safely at Auckland.

An article about the incident in the Sydney Morning Herald quotes a plane spotter who was listening on his HF radio to an exchange between the crew on the A340 and air traffic controllers at Auckland Oceanic Centre when he heard the pilots say that the rumbling noise from the space debris could be heard over the noise of the aircraft.
"He described he saw a piece of debris lighting up as it re-entered [the earth's atmosphere].

"He was one very worried pilot, as you would imagine.

"Auckland is talking to [an] Aerolineas Argentinas [pilot] who is travelling [in the] opposite direction at 10 degrees further south asking if they wish to turn back to Auckland.

"They have elected to carry on at the moment.

"[It's] not something you come across everyday and I am sure the Lan Chile crew will have a tale to tell."
Indeed, I'm sure they will!

The SMH says that a spokesman for Airways New Zealand, which provides air navigation services across airspace known as the Auckland Flight Information Region, confirmed to them that the incident occurred about 10 minutes after the LAN Chile flight had entered the Auckland Flight Information Region.
Airways New Zealand had been warned by Russian authorities almost two weeks ago that a satellite would be entering the earth's atmosphere sometime today between 10.30am and midday [NZ time].

Airways New Zealand then provided that information to airlines and pilots that would be travelling in that region at that time.

They could then decide for themselves whether they wished to fly during that period.

"But clearly there has been a timing issue," the spokesman said.

"Either the time that was indicated to us was incorrect or the satellite de-orbited early."

Because the timing was wrong, the coordinates of where the satellite was supposed to enter the Earth's atmosphere also turned out to be incorrect.
In case you are wondering, the spacecraft in question was thought to be an unmanned Russian Progress 23P freighter that had been used to deliver fuel, oxygen and spare parts to the International Space Station.

Ah, but now the plot thickens: A more recent news report posted barely an hour ago on Stuff, a New Zealand news website, says that the flaming debris might not have been space junk at all. Instead it may have been a meteor.

Stuff quotes a NASA scientist from the Johnson Space Center who said that he had checked on this with the Russians. They told the NASA guy that their unmanned cargo spacecraft had fired its re-entry rockets a half day after the airliner reported the near-miss.

In any case, there were no injuries and no damage to the airliner caused by the unidentified falling object -- just a couple of pilots with their hair standing on end.