While most people are fascinated with surreal and often mysterious flying objects darting across the night sky, even more fascinating objects can fall out of it.

Napier Planetarium curator Gary Sparks says he receives about four calls a year about strange flying objects, which often turn out to be Chinese lanterns, aeroplanes that don’t appear to be moving but actually are, or oddly shaped drones.

But perhaps the most interesting are the visitors cradling objects that have travelled a hot 340,000km from space, before a destructive landing in someone’s back garden or farmland.

According to Sparks, the East Coast of New Zealand is right in the firing line for NASA to fire space rubbish, because it’s one of the largest uninhabited places on the surface of the earth.

“So if you’re looking for a target for something that’s least likely to hit anybody, or de-orbiting your space craft, this where they come down.

“I have had phone calls from people who often claim they’ve seen things falling from the sky, and it’s not unusual.”

Sparks says he’s been approached over the years by residents who have made some incredible discoveries.

“There’s a guy here in town that has over 400 pieces of a single spacecraft that splashed down not far off the coast here, many years ago.

“We contacted NASA and they found it so interesting that they flew over to have a look at the pieces. They’re always interested in re-entering things so they want to make sure that stuff burns up properly and it’s not going to become a hazard, especially after the Skylab situation in Australia.”

Skylab was a US space station launched by NASA in 1973, and was manned by teams of astronauts as it orbited the earth. It collected vast amounts of data and images before being abandoned in space in 1974.

In 1979, NASA realised Skylab was starting to break up and would re-enter earth’s atmosphere, but they were unable to control Skylab’s path, nor could they predict exactly where the pieces might land.

In the early hours of July 12, 1979, Skylab crashed on Western Australia’s southeast coast, scattering debris across the Nullarbor and the eastern goldfields and causing a worldwide sensation.

“They don’t want that to happen again, lucky it landed in the outback, you wouldn’t want parts of a space station bouncing down the middle of downtown Auckland.

“The way they de-orbit things is rather important to them. So when he came over to look at all this stuff and in the end he was able to actually tell us the exact Russian spacecraft where the pieces had come from.

“He even sent us a photo of that section of the spacecraft from the Russian Space Agency files, of the actual area of the spacecraft where all the pieces came from, the launch date, everything.”

Sparks says a woman based in Tutira also approached him after finding a strange object on her farm.

“NASA weren’t interested in that discovery, but we x-rayed it and it looked like a whole section of solar panels.

“Usually when they launch something like that it’s all folded up, then they unfurl in space. Before they re-enter them, they furl them back up again with the idea that there will be less pieces hurling back.”

Sparks says as it fell back through the earth’s atmosphere, all the silicon from the panels melted into a “blob”.

“When we got it x-rayed, you could see the layers of where the folded pieces had folded one on the other. When you looked at the other side, it just looked like some grey melted plastic. It left a crater on their farm when it came down”



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